Masterful mysteries

By CHARLES TAYLOR  |  June 10, 2008

Magadlen Nabb’s carabiniere sleuth Marshal Salvatore Guarnaccia is someone who has been able to do better. Guarnaccia is a classic example of the person driven to police work by empathy. In Nabb’s Florence-set series, Guarnaccia’s investigations provide him with a way to do what you feel he wants to do anyway: know the people under his care. It’s no coincidence that many of the books include scenes where Guarnaccia listens to and soothes the real or imagined fears of some worried pensioner.

What buoys Guarnaccia throughout the series is his wife, Teresa, and their two sons. Teresa and the boys are away in Vita Nuova, the 13th Guarnaccia mystery, setting the marshal adrift. And that only contributes to the melancholy with which Nabb’s admirers, like myself, approach this book. Nabb died this past August in Florence at the far-too-young age of 60. That knowledge haunts the central section of the book when Guarnaccia, investigating a murder that leads into evidence of human trafficking, uncovers knowledge of high corruption that may well finish his career. There’s never any real question about whether the marshal will pursue his case. But the pages where he worries about the consequences and calculates the possibility of providing for his family on his pension all contribute to the disquieting sensation of encountering tremors in the most stable of men. Guarnaccia, the Sicilian who has settled in Florence, who has endured periods away from his beloved Teresa, is one of those men born without a wandering soul, someone who flourishes in settled ground.

Vita Nuova is perhaps grimmer than we are used to from Nabb, the threat of violence more prominent, the crime seamier. But what shakes you up (particularly if you’re familiar with the series) is Guarnaccia’s burst of anxiety. Tied as it is to middle-age — and our own knowledge of Nabb’s early death — and playing off the way Nabb has always posited family life, married love, and the satisfactions of work as the rock of Guarnaccia’s world, this sequence has the ability to impart the tremor of someone walking over your grave. Even the stability the marshal regains has a dark note. The world is a bit crueler in this final installment of the marshal’s investigations, the world of crime fiction poorer for the loss of Magdalen Nabb.

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