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The Marshal and the Mad Woman by Magdalen Nabb

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The Marshal and the Mad Woman by Magdalen Nabb

I have slowly been reading my way through The Marshall Guarnaccia mystery novels by Magdalen Nabb. I know that there will be no more because Magdalen Nabb died in 2007 and Marshall Guarnaccia along with her.

There are twelve crime novels featuring Marshal Guarnaccia of the Carabinieri, all set in Florence, which Magdalen Nabb describes as “a very secret city. Walk down any residential street and you have no idea what is going on behind those blank walls. It's a problem the Marshal comes up against all the time.”

And, it is on a back street that this case begins – The Marshal and the Mad Woman. The Mad Woman, Clementina, is a local eccentric. Her neighbors are used to her odd behavior – her relentless cleaning – her lack of communication. This is a neighborhood where everyone knows everyone else’s business – few secrets remain secrets for long – and most have something to hide. The local bartender is a man who knows all of the secrets in the neighborhood – he has many himself but the Marshall “had made up his mind to notice nothing” in order to gain the trust of this busybody.

Marshall Guarnaccia finds it difficult to discover exactly what went on the night that the mad woman died. He is quite sure the murderer is an outsider who “assumed that nobody would care that much. A crazy old woman, poor and harmless, whom nobody would miss”.

To complicate matters it is the month of August. Anyone who has traveled in Europe in August knows that they will find businesses and favourite restaurants closed. The tradition of closing up and going on holiday for the month is still observed, especially in France and Italy, regardless of the influx of North American tourists. And Florence, crowded with tourists in August is no exception. “This being August…” is the response that the Marshall gets most often to his inquiries. It proves to be a slow and frustrating investigation.

And it is hot. There is a marvelous scene as the novel opens and the Marshall is attempting to teach his wife how to drive – in Florence – in the neighborhood where the Mad Woman will soon be murdered.

The story is set in the Florence of today but the Marshall must look in to the past to discover who would want to kill Clementina. In this case the past is not too distant – it is back only forty years or so, to the floods that ravaged this city in 1966. Magdalene Nabb’s description of the flood and the damage to the homes and the lives of the people of Florence are spectacular.

The Carabinieri station in Florence is housed in the Pitti Palace, known for its famous art collections. The Boboli Gardens provide an escape from the noise and the heat of the city – especially now that tourists are charged an admission fee – only citizens of Florence can enjoy the gardens free of charge. Magdalen Nabb lived near enough to the Carabinieri station to stop there regularly and have a chat with the real life marshal, who kept her up to date on crime in the city.

Most of Magdalen Nabb’s novels are based on real crimes that happened in Florence or the surrounding area. She has created a character who seems to plod along, protecting his light sensitive eyes, appearing to be a bit dim intellectually to those around him. But he is observing and quietly putting it all together. These are slow moving novels compared to many but that is part of the appeal. The mystery and the solution are slowly revealed, and over the course of several novels we come to know more and more about the Marshal and his family – and Florence itself.

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