Thursday, October 29, 2009

Magdalen Nabb's Marshall Guarnaccia Novels

Don't you hate it when you discover a new author you really like, and it turns out she's dead?

I don't suppose this happens too much to people who've recently fallen in love with someone like Dickens. Even an inattentive reader is probably going to guess that he lived in the 19th century. The style is all wrong for a modern novelist, and all that attention to detail just seems a little too perfect, you know? Besides, eventually they'll stumble across an edition that mentions his bio on the back or has a foreword that fesses up that the guy died.

There are all sorts of pitfalls to modern novels, though. Unless you're someone willing to risk spoiling a book by looking up the author on Wikipedia ahead of time, you never know who you're dealing with. You might be sitting in the Barnes & Noble café cheerily chatting up a stranger about this new writer you've discovered, and they could turn to you and say, "You know that guy got arrested for being a pedophile, right?" To borrow an analogue from music, imagine how teenagers who'd just gotten into the Who felt after raving about Who's Next when someone told them Pete Townsend got arrested for Googling little girls.

The worst thing, of course, at least in terms of reader satisfaction, is finding out the author died. With Dickens, you know to pace yourself. If you race through The Pickwick Papers, nothing's going to change the fact that you now have ten books left. Sure, there's the rare chance that an author'll pull a Tupac and have a bestseller long after they've croaked — Camus' The First Man comes to mind — but after over a century you can be pretty sure that Knopf isn't going to drop Charles Dickens' R U Still Down? No matter how much you want to see more from the guy, that's it. There is no more.

After enjoying both Death in Autumn and Some Bitter Taste from author Magdalen Nabb, I decided to Wikipedia her and figure out what her deal was. Given the above, my finding out that she died in 2007 and saying, "Aw, shit," should seem pretty reasonable.

Nabb belongs in that group of genre novelists who exploit the tropes of their style of fiction so well and with such thoughtfulness about their environments to earn the appellation "stylist." Her writings didn't blaze new trails in fiction, nor did they achieve a totally unique insight into human behavior or the written word. But within her genre, she's top notch, and within fiction as a whole, her books will be remembered as pleasurably competent and often quite good. Like Alan Furst's or John le Carré's in espionage fiction, her stories set detective fiction on the same level as "literature." Her characters are real, her imagery and pacing often beautiful and always well-executed. Even if, in the terms of fiction as a whole, her work can't be considered great, she took a genre and made it universally enjoyable and accessible.

Part of that might come from "writing what you know." Nabb was born in a working-class English family, moved to Florence, Italy in the 1970s and essentially started over with life. As a foreigner in what is — tourists, students and wealthy expats aside — a relatively small city, she recognized that she would always unavoidably view Florence from the outside in. Thus she quite cleverly wrote her Florentine stories in the way she experienced the city itself, taking a native Sicilian and plugging him into a place that's just as foreign for him as it was for her.

As for the police procedural aspect, Nabb was fortunate to meet and befriend several officers of the Carabinieri shortly after moving to Florence. The star of her books, Marshal Guarnaccia, is modeled after one of these officers, as are several other characters. Once she began writing, these friends took her along as an observer of routine police work, giving her a thorough grounding in both the mundanity of their daily lives and the reactions they'd have to the unique (and uniquely horrible) events to which their jobs subjected them.

Perhaps it's the modeling at work, but Nabb rarely missteps in describing Guarnaccia's work. The paunchy and tired Sicilian wants to help people, doesn't consider himself any genius, is generally overwhelmed and bewildered by the thousands of tourists — all of whom make him wonder why they don't just stay at home — gets pushed about by the demands of wealthy expatriates and Florentine nobility, and suffers the hassles of working with ambitious prosecutors (in Italy, prosecutors are assigned to cases before arrests and can direct the scope of investigations against the wishes of the regular police and the military police, the Carabinieri). Still, because he is curious, patient and open-minded, he consistently wins through.

This works for Nabb in two ways. One, the worst part of most writing about detectives (or amateur sleuths) who are geniuses is that the authors themselves aren't. The staggering insights aren't so staggering; as a result often important clues go unmentioned until the dramatic concluding reveal, attempting to mask the fact that the mystery is "unsolvable" by making it literally so for the audience.

Two, Guarnaccia is a very recognizable, familiar and comforting character. Because the reader is not told that he's brilliantly observant, he or she can follow along feeling like a part of the narrative. We can see in him any old cop we might have met, someone who believes in the system without really being a part of it, someone who has ideals but doesn't declaim idealism. We can see the family men we are or have known — the overworked dad who's struggling to equalize the brainpower he devotes to work problems with that he devotes to remembering his kids' and wife's interests, changes and demands. There are many hacky faults to Agatha Christie, but the biggest is that Hercule Poirot is nobody any of us have ever met. Marshal Guarnaccia might as well be the guy down the street in the bathrobe and with the blotchy eyelids grabbing his paper in the morning. It just so happens that his street is in Florence.

Here, too, Nabb smartly avoids a misstep. Because Guarnaccia is Italian but not Florentine, most mistakes she might make in characterizing the city and its inhabitants can be ascribed to a narrator who is just as much a foreigner as she is. Guarnaccia was probably born sometime in the 1940s or 1950s, and for Americans this probably means nothing, but for Italians it helps to justify a fish-out-of-water character. Although the Tuscan (essentially Florentine) dialect was established as "Standard Italian" during the unification of Italy in the mid-19th century, that standardization didn't become linguistically universal until the post-war years, with the advent of greater mass communication. Though Americans from the northeast might have complained in the 1950s about how people in the south were "difficult to understand," this would have been criticism instead of legitimate complaint, a reflection on sloppy accents, not literally difficult dialects. Meanwhile, in Italy, this sort of complaint would have seemed totally reasonable: there were many speakers still monoglot in regional dialects that non-Italians who'd only studied official Tuscan Italian would not have understood.

What the reader then finds is a novel that celebrates Florence and is about Florence, yet is written by a non-Florentine about a non-Florentine. By marrying her outside-in perspective to a protagonist who has the same, Nabb immediately elides any problems she might have in terms of subtle verisimilitude. Even if she gets a small detail of Florentine life wrong, it's probably still right within the context of the books, because obviously the character himself might have missed it too. Nabb and Guarnaccia feel their way around the city and in doing so create an environment deeper than the tourists but probably nothing like a native's familiarity.

This degree of circumspection likely informs the rest of the text. Nabb came to Florence as a potter and also worked as an English teacher. So far as I can tell, she wasn't a "writer" in any official or published capacity. Yet I think that position only helped her, as she married genre to reticence about her description of people. The essence of any mystery story involves capturing the outward behavior of people while mistaking their inward motive. It's a wonderful atmosphere for the writer unsure of herself. You can write around characters, feeling their human periphery until you get at something like their multi-dimensional inner self, then exploit it once you know what's there. By all accounts, this is what Nabb did: starting out stories with crimes, characters and a few premises, then writing until a narrative took hold within the text the characters manifested.

Though I've only read a few of her books, some shortcomings emerge. For one, she falls back on reiterating the same details of and observations from her main character. It's a common detective-story trope: the paragraph or two that all fans of the series can repeat by heart, down to the quote that says, "This the detective of which we're a fan." For another, the middle section of her books often seem to involve the "mistaken and dogged investigation of the Wrong Man" phenomenon. Though what little I know of the Italian justice system tells me that this is actually pretty standard fare, it nevertheless provides a familiar middle for a detective novel. Perhaps it would work better if Guarnaccia's doubts weren't so substantive, the prosecution so hasty or the timing in the book so... well... procedural. Again, though, this might be her fictive reflection of what has legitimately happened in the Florentine justice system in the past, so perhaps the reader should just roll with it.

There are other mystery-writer sins to engage too. In two Nabb books, chosen at random, she employs the familiar plot device of two seemingly random unrelated crimes coming together at the end as connected acts. It's a good way of taking a closed-room novella mystery and making it novel length, but it's overused. It also minimizes the mystery, because readers can start inferring connections from chapter two or three, refine them by mid-book and have the ending wrapped up long before the narrative.

Nabb also sometimes exhibits the opposite (some would say the biggest) mystery sin: withholding. She presents the resolution to Some Bitter Taste via a long exposition from someone who is nearly incidentally interviewed in the investigation. While happenstance and undiscovered resources of knowledge mark a real-life investigation, structurally it seems a little bit of a let-down to meet someone who discloses decades of cover-up, a business whose aspect was never related before, family members we've never met, and a legal crusade ongoing for decades that no one would have dreamt of. It might be real in terms of what happens to cops, but in a closed-door mystery, it's lazy, and while it ties numerous threads together, it's tough to read it as anything other than the shortest way of wrapping up.

These ills pervade the mystery genre, and at this point it's either fussy or ignorant to dismiss a mystery writer for them. By buying the book — any mystery book — a reader concedes that some of these things will happen. The important distinction comes in terms of what kind of text surrounds them. What the reader will find, in this case, is a devotional love of the city of Florence and the Florentine character, one that offers a romantic familiarity in the midst of whodunit. For fans of the city, the atmosphere is enough to sustain the rest of the books.

As for the procedural elements, not all are well-prescribed and neatly executed. Some mystery fans will delight in denouements knitting dozens of different threads in a contrived "mystery" manner. Others will enjoy solutions that come by accident, by random interview, by the unpredictable serendipity of circumstance and question that's often a hallmark of real policework. What one finds depends on the novel, but all are worth a read and engender enough goodwill to try more in the series.

Rating: 4
The rating is reflective of the series as a whole. Some of the books wander a little (though never tryingly far afield), while some are exceptionally lean and well-executed. Strongly recommended for friends or family who love mysteries and who you wish read more elegant fiction. Also strongly recommended for friends or family who really love Florence but can't get back there: the exposition and background details are immediately recognizable to anyone who's spent even a few days in the city and are a great way of re-experiencing, in a more pedestrian and "native" way, things that were processed only as a tourist.

Those buying online: the books with shorter page-counts are printed with smaller text, smaller line-spacing and greater use of the space on the page. In terms of reading experience, there is not a substantial difference between a 150-page Nabb book and a 300-page Nabb book, because they should be typographically presented in such a way as to equalize the reading experience. When in doubt, go cheaper on her Guarnaccia series, taking advantage of the page count. It should still be pleasantly rewarding.