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The debut of Marshal Salvatore Guarnaccia of the Carabinieri, a Sicilian stationed in Florence.
It is just before Christmas and the marshal wants to go south to spend the holiday with his wife and family, but first he must recover from the flu (which has left the Florentine carabinieri short-handed) and also solve a murder. A seemingly respectable retired Englishman, living in a flat on the Via Maggio near the Santa Trinita Bridge, was shot in the back during the night. He was ...
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The debut of Marshal Salvatore Guarnaccia of the Carabinieri, a Sicilian stationed in Florence.
It is just before Christmas and the marshal wants to go south to spend the holiday with his wife and family, but first he must recover from the flu (which has left the Florentine carabinieri short-handed) and also solve a murder. A seemingly respectable retired Englishman, living in a flat on the Via Maggio near the Santa Trinita Bridge, was shot in the back during the night. He was well connected and Scotland Yard has dispatched two officers to "assist" the Italians in solving the crime. But it is the marshal, a quiet observer, not an intellectual, who manages to figure out what happened, and why.
In addition to evoking the wonderful atmosphere of Florence, Magdalen Nabb has created a delightful investigator who has been described as "the most Maigret-like of contemporary policemen" by The Times Literary Supplement.
Magdalen Nabb was born in Lancashire and has lived in Florence since 1975. She has now written eight internationally celebrated mysteries set in Florence.
"A coup de maître, as we say in French . . . One of the tastiest books I have read for years."
"Magdalen Nabb is so good she's awesome."
"Guarnaccia is one of fiction’s most satisfying detectives, a man whose domestic life is as fascinating as his cases . . . The series began with Death of an Englishman and is distinguished by its superb sense of place."
—The Times' "One Hundred Masters of Crime"
"Neatly plotted and well written . . . A more than sparkling debut."
—Times Literary Supplement
The small office was in darkness, except where the rednight lamp stood by the telephone on the desk, and thewhite kid gloves lying on top of a sheaf of papers withinthe patch of light were flushed pink. A black uniformjacket was hung over the back of a swivel chair and amatching military greatcoat, lined with red, wasbuttoned neatly on to a hanger behind the door, alongsidea well-brushed hat. There was just room in the officefor a camp bed along one white-painted wall, and on thecamp bed, his legs carefully placed so as not to crease thered stripe down his trousers, lay Carabiniere Bacci. Hewas doing night duty. The features of his Florentine facewere serene. He was asleep.
He was very young and he slept deeply, with a copy ofthe Codice di Procedura Penale open on his chest and ahandbook of military tactics on the floor beside him. Hisidea had been to stay awake all night and study, but thecloseness of the little office, the softness of the red light,and the silence had combined to close his brown eyes,though he thought in his dream that he was still reading.
The telephone shrilled loudly and insistently in its poolof light. Carabiniere Bacci had leapt to his feet before hewas awake and saluted before he was on his feet. When herealized what the noise was, he grabbed the receiverquickly before it could wake the Marshal. A small,distressed voice said:
`Marshal Guarnaccia, Marshal ... you'd better comeround here right away, it's the Englishman, he—'
`Just a moment.' Carabiniere Bacci felt about for themain light switch andpicked up a pencil.
`This is not Marshal Guarnaccia, this is CarabiniereBacci speaking, who's that?'
There was a pause, then the voice continuedobediently, `Cipolla, Gianpaolo Maria.'
`And the address?'
`My address?' The voice was so weak that CarabiniereBacci wondered if he were speaking to a man or a boy.
`Your address and the address you're speaking from ifthey're different.'
`Via Romana eighty-three red, that's my address.'
`And you're speaking from?'
`Via Maggio fifty-eight.'
`And there's been a crime committed there?'
`Yes, it's the Englishman ... Is the Marshal not there?My sister lives next door to the Marshal, with her husbandbeing a gardener in the Boboli, so I know him—and theMarshal ...'
`Might I ask you,' said Carabiniere Bacci with all thecold dignity of his two months' practical experience, `justwhat you're doing in Via Maggio in the middle of thenight if you live down Via Romana?'
Another pause. Then the small voice said, `But ... it'smorning ... I work here.'
`I see. Well. Stay where you are and I'll be over there infive minutes.' Carabiniere Bacci pulled on his jacket andgreatcoat and adjusted his hat and kid gloves carefully. Itdistressed him not to wash and shave but the mattermight be urgent ... he hesitated, looking towards thedoor that led to the Marshal's living quarters and thenback at the door where his coat had hung and where aBeretta nine was now visible, hung up with its whiteleather holster and webbing. The Marshal was sweatingin bed with the onset of `flu, which was why CarabiniereBacci had insisted on sleeping in the office instead ofgoing upstairs to bed—quite unnecessarily, in theMarshal's opinion—but Carabiniere Bacci was known asthe `perfect student'. Quietly he took down the gun,checked it and strapped it on with an eye on the innerdoor. He ought to wake the Marshal, perhaps, or phonethrough to Borgo Ognissanti in case he needed help ...but if he phoned Headquarters they would surely tell himto stay where he was and they'd send an Officer ...Carabiniere Bacci had never in his life been near thescene of a crime ... still ... he was drumming softly withhis gloved fingers on the desk. The Marshal had said thatif anything important came up—it might not be anythingat all, of course—nothing ever did happen at StazionePitti ...
Carabiniere Bacci did not like the Marshal. In the firstplace because he was Sicilian and he suspected him ofbeing, if not actually Mafia, at least mafioso, and heknew that the Marshal knew of his suspicion and evenencouraged it. He seemed to think it was funny. Hedisliked the Marshal in the second place because he wastoo large and fat and had an embarrassing eyecomplaint—embarrassing to Carabiniere Bacci—thatcaused him to weep copiously during the hours of sunlight.And since he continually mourned the absence ofhis wife and children who were at home in Syracuse, hisrolling tears often seemed distressingly real—distressingto Carabiniere Bacci. The Marshal himself would fishunperturbedly for the dark glasses that were always in oneof his voluminous pockets and explain to anyone andeveryone, `It's all right, just a complaint I have. It's thesunshine starts it off.'
He thought he wouldn't wake the Marshal. Via Maggiowas only two steps away. He could be there and back inten minutes and then wake him if it seemed necessary. Hestepped outside and locked the office door.
The caller had been right—it was morning, just about.A sluggish, damp December dawn. Thick yellow fog roseoff the river and seeped along the narrow streets todeaden Carabiniere Bacci's footsteps as he came outunder the dark, stone archway and crossed the slopingforecourt of the Pitti palace. The few ghostly cars thathad been left there all night were misted with finedroplets of moisture. He crossed the silent piazza and cutthrough an alley that slit the high buildings dividingPiazza Pitti from Via Maggio. He was shivering inside hisheavy greatcoat, aware of the whole city sleeping behindclosed shutters. The streetlights were still on, but sincethe narrow passage had only one iron lamp at each end,Carabiniere Bacci had to tread carefully, squeezing pastthe inevitable line of illegally parked mopeds, his nosediscreetly lifted against the stench of drains that hung inthe dawn fog and that would not be dispersed until therush-hour traffic drove it off and replaced it with exhaustfumes. Halfway along the alley, at its gloomiest point, hestumbled on to a Coca-Cola can that rolled away alongthe uneven flags, rattling his nerves. When he came outin Via Maggio he stopped, wondering which way to go.To his right, the street of tall Renaissance palaces wentalong to the river and the Santa Trinita bridge, invisiblenow in the fog; to his left, a shorter stretch of the streetled to a tiny triangular piazza where it met the roadcoming from the Pitti. Consulting both the red and blacknumbering systems carefully, Carabiniere Bacci turnedleft towards the little piazza and crossed over ... 52 ...106 red ... 108 red ... the faint old red numbers werebarely visible in the grey half-light but the large blackones stood out clearly on their white plates and it was ablack one he was looking for ... 54 ... 110 red ...56 ... 58. There was an indecipherable coat of armscarved in stone at first-floor level. The gigantic, iron-studdeddoors reached up to the coat of arms, and theshutters on all three upper floors were closed. No threadof light was showing to indicate which floor the call hadcome from and Carabiniere Bacci realized now that hehad forgotten to ask what name to look for. There was abank housed in the ground floor of the building and ashop with its metal shutter down. The shop marked theend of Via Maggio and faced the little piazza. It was theshop which eventually reminded him—an Englishman—he'dread it somewhere ... `A nation of shopkeepers' ...he ran a white-gloved finger delicately down the polishedbrass bellplate, peering closely at the list of names ...Frediani ... Cipriani ... Cesarini ... no ... A.Langley-Smythe, that would be it on the ground-floorright—but surely not the ground floor? The nameplateon the bell opposite was blank, must be a porter's lodge.Up on the top floor left was another English name: `MissE. White,' with, in brackets, `Landor'. But the caller hadcertainly said a man. He rang the ground-floor bell, Noanswer. He rang again, bending to put his ear to thespeaker. Nothing. It could be a hoax ... or even a trap ofsome sort, it often happened ... he'd heard stories ... hewas getting a little nervous. It could be some Sicilian whohad it in for the Marshal ... or terrorrists? `Nothing everhappens at Stazione Pitti,' he repeated to himself quietly,and then he heard footsteps. They seemed near but theycouldn't be coming from inside the building, nothingcould be heard beyond those doors. The footsteps werecoming round the corner beyond the shop, slow, heavysteps. A dark figure emerged from the fog; it was theprivate night guard on his round.
`Open up for me,' demanded Carabiniere Bacci whenthe guard reached him. `There's something wrong inhere .'
`Nothing wrong when I last passed,' said the guardphlegmatically, pushing back his cap. He selected a keyfrom the rattling bunch in his hand, unlocked one of thegreat doors and leaned on it with his shoulder enough toopen it a couple of feet. He tossed in the white ticket thatproved to the residents that he had done his round, thenstood back. His radio coughed suddenly into life and justas suddenly silenced itself with a whistle.
`And is that all you did on your last round?' askedCarabiniere Bacci severely.
`No. I went up in the lift and checked every door.You'll find a ticket in every one if you're going in there.But since you're here I'll leave you to it this time.'
`You could come in on your next round ... I mightwant you to take a message ...' Carabiniere Bacciwished again that he'd had time to shave. He felt lessconfident than when he'd first stepped out of the office.
`I'm off home,' said the guard. `My last round. Bankguard should be here at eight.' He walked on withdeliberate steps, selected another key and vanished intothe next big doorway. Well, the bank guard, when hecame, was sure to be an ex-carabiniere and more helpful.Carabiniere Bacci pushed at the studded oak with hisshoulder until the door opened enough to admit him.
A wide, stone-flagged passage, ill-lit by a tiny nightlight,led to a pair of high, wooden carriage gates whichwould presumably open on to the central courtyard of thebuilding. Carabiniere Bacci felt for a switch and turnedon a marginally stronger bulb hanging in a spiked ironlantern before the gates. To his right was the staffentrance to the bank, to his left a disused porter's lodgewith the inquiry window boarded up. Walking slowly andloudly on the flagged floor, he reached the locked gatesand followed a smaller passage round to the left where awide stone staircase led to the upper floors. At the bottomof the staircase, on the left, were the tenants' letter-boxes,on the right, a lift and a door which looked as if it mightlead to a storeroom. A crack of yellow light was showinground this door. The name on the bell was A. Langley-Smythe.Carabiniere Bacci's loud footfall stopped. Withone gloved finger he pushed gently on the door until itswung open. A parchment lamp was lit on a dusty,littered desk. Beyond it the room was gloomy and hedidn't see A. Langley-Smythe at first. He did see, sittingby the lamp in an upright chair as if he were on guard, atiny, ashen-faced man with a brush of spiky hair and ablack cotton overall.
`So why the devil didn't you wake me up? Oh, did you?Well, you thought wrong—you took what? CarabiniereBacci, I will personally ... Have you touched anything?For God's sake, don't touch anything! — Who? what's hedoing there ... Just a minute, I've got to get a ... atchoo!He doesn't just look in a state of shock, he is in a state ofshock. His wife's on her deathbed, may even have diedlast night; his sister's down at Via Romana so what's hedoing—Look, just keep him there till I arrive, I'll have tophone through to Borgo Ognissanti first—and don'ttouch anything ... Oh Lord ...' He rang Headquarters.
Marshal Guarnaccia struggled slowly into his uniform,sneezing almost continuously. He felt sick and dizzy andhis whole body burned and ached. He found some aspirinin the bathroom and took half a dozen of them with fourtumblers of mineral water that left his throat as hot anddry as when he started. Tomorrow he should be goinghome for Christmas; he couldn't be ill, he couldn't spendChristmas alone and sick in his quarters in Florence,when every other Sicilian in the city was elbowing his wayon to one of the overflowing southbound trains, ladenwith lumpy parcels and suitcases tied up with string. Hesneezed again loudly and stepped out under the archway,feeling light-headed as the cold dampness enveloped hisfeverish face. A watery sun was just breaking through themorning fog and Marshal Guarnaccia began to weep.Sighing, he delved into his coat pocket and put on a pairof dark glasses.
The Englishman's flat, when the Marshal reached it,was as busy as a railway station. There were more than adozen people inside and two porters from the Medico-LegalInstitute were leaning in the doorway arguingheatedly with the Brigadier on guard.
`I can't digest it and that's that ...'
`It's the temperature of the oil that counts, if you triedit the way my mother makes it ...'
`As far as I'm concerned a good beefsteak ...'
The Marshal pushed past them with a nod. `Jesus,Mary and Joseph,' he said softly, once inside. He wasn'tlooking at the body of A. Langley-Smythe which,anyway, was hidden from his view by two photographers,the Substitute Prosecutor and Professor Forli from theMedico-Legal Institute, he was looking out into thecourtyard at the pathetic figure of the little cleaner in hisskimpy black overall. A french window had, in somerecent decade, been let into the thick stone wall, and thecleaner was out there picking up bits of rubbish from themossy flags around big terra-cotta plantpots and puttingthem in a polythene bag. His face had a greenish pallor.
`He looked as though he might faint if he waited in hereany longer,' explained Carabiniere Bacci, who had notbeen far from fainting himself during the time he hadbeen alone with the body. `Apparently, he cleans thecourtyard once a month as well as the stairs and entrancewhich he does every week. I thought it might take hismind off things since he had to wait ... and as you saidhis wife was ill ...'
`She's dead,' murmured the Marshal, his great eyesfixed on the stooping figure outside. He had taken thetime to call next door on his way out and the gardenerhad opened up, his eyes red, his face dark with beard. Hehad been preparing breakfast for the children, as his wifewas still down at Via Romana.
The group round the body was breaking up. TheCaptain from Headquarters who was in charge of the casecame out of the bedroom, where his technicians wereworking, and regarded the Substitute Prosecutor with araised eyebrow. The other turned his own eyes heavenward.There was no need to say it. That this had tohappen so near the holidays ...
`And no chance of its being a suicide,' sighed the S.P.
`Hardly. Shot in the back and no weapon found.'
`Well, do what you can ...'
Do what you can to clear it up by Christmas. The S.P.shook hands with the Captain and with Professor Forliwho was also ready to leave and was closing his bag. TheMarshal turned and looked at him hopefully:
`D'you think you could—'
`Nothing,' said the Professor automatically. `Not untilafter the autopsy—other than what you can see for yourself.And then a lot will depend on our knowing whattime he last ate ... Let's hope he eats in a restaurant—itseems likely, he was obviously a bachelor.' The Professor,an elegant, grey-haired man, glanced at the prevailingsqualor around him with evident distaste.
`Actually,' said the Marshal humbly, `that's all a bitbeyond my scope,' and he sat down heavily on a dustyantique chair and mopped his brow. `I was going to askyou if you could give me anything for this fever.'
`I suppose so.'
`What have you been taking?'
The Professor felt his pulse, `You ought to be in bed.'
`I know.' The Marshal's glance went involuntarily toCarabiniere Bacci, rising and falling gently on his well-polishedheels by the french windows and slappinghimself nervously with his kid gloves.
`I see.' The Professor had followed his glance.
`And I've a Brigadier off sick and my only other boy'salready on his way home.' It was the same everywhere atholiday times, the inexorable trickle southwards, assteady and as inevitable as sand running through an egg-timer,leaving museums, hospitals, banks and policestations severely understaffed.
`We're in the same boat,' sympathized the Professor.`I'll prescribe an antibiotic—but I warn you, you'd bettertake it easy. Let the lad do your running about and leavethis business to the Captain.'
`You needn't worry about that. Stolen handbags areabout our limit at Pitti; he won't want me. I'm justkeeping an eye on this boy. The sooner he's safely back inOfficer School the better. They seem to come youngerevery year. I must be getting old.'
`Well, try and get some rest, anyway, and drink plentyof fluids.' Both of them noticed at the same time thealmost empty whisky bottle standing by the parchmentlamp. `Not that stuff.'
`I've never tasted it.' The Marshal drank half a litre ofred every day with his evening meal, never more nor less,and a drop of vinsanto on Sundays.
`And no wine, either, while you're on this.' TheProfessor was reading the Marshal's mind as he wrote. Hepassed him the prescription and gave a pat to theenormous shoulder. `Bear up.'
`Captain ...?' One of the technicians was crouching ina corner of the room, examining some object there. TheCaptain went over to look. A blue and white majolicabust, the head of an angel. The technician was gentlybrushing away some dust to reveal a piece of stringencircling the neck.
`Oh no ...' said the Captain softly. He didn't relish thecomplications this was going to cause.
`'Fraid so, sir ...' He pulled on the string and broughtits lead seal into view.
The Captain stood up. `Get someone over from Pitti,will you? Try Doctor Biondini, the director of thePalatine gallery, he should be there at this time. He'llprobably be able to tell you something immediately, butif not, ring me at my office as soon as you hear ...'
When the Captain had gone back to the bedroom,Carabiniere Bacci went over to the crouching figure andasked timidly: `What's happened?' He looked at the smalllead seal. `What does it mean?'
`Trouble,' said the technician. `Rome ...' As if the twowere synonymous. `Can I have the lights over here? Tryand keep out of the way, lad, will you ...'
`Can we shift him yet?' The porters had been hangingabout for over an hour and a half. The floor outside theflat was littered with cigarette ends and their conversationwas becoming desultory.
`With the fillet on it, mind you, and rare. Nothing withit except maybe a dish of shallots done in plenty of butter,sweet and sour.'
`Onions make me ill, I never touch them.'
`You can take him,' said the Professor, hurrying out tocatch up with the Substitute Prosecutor and invite him tobreakfast in a bar.
The porters began to manuvre the considerable bulkof A. Langley-Smythe on to their stretcher, and theMarshal noticed that he was wearing trousers under hisdressing-gown and that there was not a lot of blood,although a small patch of it had trickled on to the cornerof a Persian carpet that lay before the fireplace. Theporters left with their burden, their loud voices echoing inthe stone passageway. The Captain and his men werecloseted in the bedroom again, where they seemed to havefound something of interest. The Marshal andCarabiniere Bacci were left alone in the living-room.
The Marshal's eyes were closed, his large, damp handsplaced squarely on his knees as if to keep himself steady, `Iwant you to do one thing immediately. Do it properly anddo it quickly.'
`Yes sir.' Carabiniere Bacci clicked to attention on thestone floor. Flinching slightly, the Marshal handed himthe prescription and said: `Go out into the piazza, to thechemist next to the stationer's, and get this filled.'
`Yes, sir.' Carabiniere Bacci drew on his gloves, tookthe prescription delicately between two fingers and strodeelegantly towards the door.
`And be quick about it!'
The Marshal sat where he was, his large watery eyesopen now but expressionless, taking in everything aroundhim. The room was overfurnished, in a strangely haphazardfashion, and dusty rather than dirty, the sort ofclaustrophobic dustiness of attics and junkrooms. Thefurniture was a motley collection of styles and periods, allof it very antique and much of it too large even in such ahigh, spacious room as this one. There were some oilpaintings that hadn't been hung, just propped against thewalls on top of the furniture. The only pieces that lookedsettled there were the desk and the worn leather chairsbefore and behind it, on one of which the Marshal wasnow sitting, and an enormous old armchair, upholsteredin faded red velvet. The velvet cushions were squashedinto somebody's habitual sitting position and an Englishnewspaper was half pushed down the side of the seat. Thechair was by the stone fireplace where the remains of awood fire lay cold in the grate. The hearth was litteredwith cigarette ends. The Marshal was tempted to sink hisaching limbs into the velvet cushions but the imprint ofthe Englishman's body was too evident. He sighed andwent on looking around him. `Very nice,' he said softly,regarding the marble statuary on either side of thefireplace. The two figures, their deep folds heavilyaccented by dust, looked Roman but they might havebeen Florentine copies. Very nice, even so. A rich man,then, but living on the ground floor ... he stared outagain at the empty courtyard, his great bulk as still andhis great eyes as sightless as those of the marble figures.
Excerpted from Death of an Englishman by Magdalen Nabb. Copyright © 1999 by Diogenes Verlag AG Zurich. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted September 4, 2013
A fantastic, deceivingly subtle, often witty literary crime novel from one of the mystery genre's greatest authors. A great find for any Donna Leon readers or lovers of crime novels that do more than posit a who-done-it with no attention to prose or style.
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Posted April 9, 2011
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