On Magdalen Nabb

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Everyone has  their favourite country for holidays….mine is Italy.  I’ve been to Lake Garda, Umbria, Tuscany, Florence, Lake Garda again, Florence again, and of course Rome. This year I went to Crete which looks a little bit like Italy, and once again I pursued my favourite holiday pastime – reading detective novels set in Italy whilst actually being in Italy. (Or in Crete – my mind is very easily fooled.) And the key holiday texts for me are the novels of Donna Leon, Michael Dibdin (author of the Aurelio Zen mysteries) and the great and under-appreciated Magdalen Nabb.  Nabb’s unlikely hero Marshal Guarnaccia is a carabinieri officer with poor deductive powers, very little social self-confidence, who is absent-minded to the point of rudeness, and who essentially muddles his way through every case aided by his astonishing memory, his instinct for people, and his passion for truth.  He is like Columbo, but less suave. (!)

Nabb’s books are stylishly written, understated, and rich in emotion and truth.  She evokes an Italy of forests and feuds and bitter neighbourhood disputes; almost every chapter features the Marshal having a long boozy lunch and sleepwalking his way through the afternoon’s amiable interviews.  As who-dun-its, they wouldn’t feature on anyone’s Top Ten list; but as evocative studies of the queerness of folk, they are unique and special .

Years ago there was a TV adaptation of one of the novels, which misfired really because of the incongruity of English thesps playing Italian characters.  And after that, there was a period when the Marshal books seemed to go out of print – although that was no handicap really, since like all lovers of detective fiction I’m devoted to second hand bookshops and was always able to obtain my fix. 

Sadly, Magdalen Nabb has just died,  in Florence, on the 18th of August.  Her final novel Vita Nuova will be published in 2008, after which there will be no more Marshall Guarnaccia mysteries. 

I will miss him, and her.

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