Two foreign girls are abducted from a Florence piazza in broad daylight. The unusual March snowfall has distracted everyone—even Marshal Guarnaccia, who is unsure of what he has actually witnessed.
Then one of the girls turns up in a village in the Chianti, claiming the kidnappers have released her to propose a ransom for the other victim. But the marshal thinks she’s lying. Besides, Italian law forbids paying ransom to criminals, so the marshal must find the missing girl before her kidnappers decide to end her life—in this novel in the series that has been called “crime fiction at its best” (The Sunday Times).
“A masterpiece.” —Georges Simenon, author of the Inspector Maigret series
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“It can’t be. Today’s the first of March . . .”
“But it is, look!”
“Must be some sort of seed blowing on the wind.”
“What wind? I tell you it’s snow!”
The entire population of Florence had woken up blinking in amazement and consternation. Shutters had banged open and people had exclaimed to one another across courtyards and narrow streets.
Only once in the last fifteen years or so had it snowed in the city, and that had been in the middle of winter when an icy blast from the Russian Steppes had swept across the whole Italian peninsula, covering even the motorways with a paralysing blanket of white. But today was the first of March. And to make it even more incredible the weather during the past two weeks had been exceptionally warm, and the first tourists, always the ones from Germany, had been going about in light-coloured clothing, the women baring plump white arms to the feverish February sun. The Florentines themselves never shed their green loden overcoats until the end of April, but even so, a few people had been sufficiently deceived to put the first potted geraniums out on their windowsills, and in the mild evenings brown slatted shutters had been left half-open to reveal bands of yellow light and silhouetted figures looking out to watch the goings on in the piazza, giving the impression of a summer night.
Then it had only been the vine and wheat growers in the surrounding hills who had complained about the weather. After all, at that time of year it ought to have been raining. Now, to cap everything, it was snowing, and people couldn’t have been more surprised if carnival confetti had been falling out of the sky.
The eight o’clock rush hour had started under the stare of a pale cold light. Toddlers pressed their noses against windows high up in lighted apartments making patches of steam which they rubbed away or drew in with one finger.
The sky was so blank that the snow seemed to be falling down from nowhere, appearing between the great stone buildings, big wet flakes that floated into the road and vanished, leaving only a mottled damp strip between the dry pavements and gutters which were sheltered by the overhanging eaves.
People queuing for the bus in the tiny Piazza San Felice turned up their collars and looked anxiously at the sky, wondering if perhaps they should have worn a scarf or gloves. But it wasn’t even cold! There was no explanation for it at all. Opposite them, Marshal Guarnaccia of the Carabinieri was standing on the corner as he often did after having a coffee at the bar. He stood on the edge of a group of gossiping mothers who had just given their children over to the care of a nun who ushered them into the infant school next to the church, and he alone, although he turned up the collar of his black greatcoat with an automatic gesture, was not staring at the snow but at the trattoria across the street. Over there the lights were on in clusters of hanging globes, and the owner’s son, wrapped in a dirty white apron, was sweeping up in a desultory fashion, scattering sawdust just behind the glass door, staring out vacantly at the weather all the while. The boy, thin and pimply with a shock of black hair, was only sixteen, but already Marshal Guarnaccia had caught sight of him injecting himself on the steps of Santo Spirito church, sitting on the edge of the usual huddled group and glancing furtively about him in a way that only very new users do.
The number 15 bus came along and stopped, blocking the Marshal’s view. The bus, too, was lit up, and every face along its length was gazing out as if hypnotized by the big flakes floating slowly down past the windows. The Marshal, preoccupied with the problem of what, if anything, to say to the boy’s father, and with a case that was coming up in Appeal Court in a few days, continued to ignore the snow, even though, as a Sicilian, he might well have been more amazed by it than the Florentines. Nevertheless, he was destined to remember it only too well and to be driven to exasperation by witness after witness repeating the same infuriating phrase with the same apologetic smile:
“I didn’t notice anything, to be honest. I don’t know if you remember but it was snowing that morning . . . Just fancy, snowing in the centre of Florence, and in March, too . . .”
The bus signalled and moved off. The boy had parked his broom and disappeared into the back of the trattoria. The first big logs had been put on to the fire where they roasted the meat and long flames were beginning to lick at them. Above the high building, blue woodsmoke drifted about uncertainly among the loose snowflakes, adding its sweet smell to the prevailing morning odours of coffee and exhaust fumes.
The Marshal looked at his watch. There was no time to do anything about the boy now if he was going to visit the prison as he wanted to. In any case it might be better to try talking to the lad himself first and leave the father out of it. And then it was more than likely that either or both of them would tell him to mind his own business. He sighed and made to cross the road. A car was coming along from his left and signalling intermittently in the face of the one-way traffic coming relentlessly towards it up Via Romana. Two girls were in the front and someone in the back was leaning forward between them, evidently trying to give directions from behind an enormous map.
More tourists. The invasion got earlier and earlier every year, making it impossible to go about normal business in the overcrowded narrow streets. Only the day before somebody had written to the editor of the Nazione suggesting ruefully that the mayor should provide a campsite somewhere out in the hills for the Florentines since there was no longer any room for them in their own city. However profitable tourism was supposed to be, they resented the annual invasion.
It was early, too, for the Sardinian bagpipers who didn’t often appear between Christmas and Easter. But as the Marshal walked over towards Piazza Pitti and his Station he saw one coming towards him, enveloped in a long black shepherd’s cloak, the white sheepskin airbag tucked under his arm. He was playing disjointedly and rather discordantly and no one took any notice of him or gave him any money. The Marshal automatically glanced across at the other side of the street expecting to see the second piper who played the melody on a small, oboe-like pipe, but he was nowhere in sight. Probably gone into one of the shops to beg. There was no time to linger and the Marshal went up the sloping forecourt of the Pitti Palace, squeezing his decidedly overweight bulk between the closely parked cars, and disappearing under the stone archway on the left.
When he poked his head into the office to say that he was taking the van he added, as an afterthought: “It’s snowing . . .”
Just outside Florence in the Chianti hills it snowed harder and the sky remained low and white all day. The loose flakes melted quickly on the stony, ochre-coloured roads but managed to cling to the newly sprouting wheat. The stiff little leaves on the olive trees each held a wafer of snow. There was no frost and evidently no danger of it, and the country people looking out of the barred windows of castles, villas and farmhouses regarded this unexpected but harmless weather with scant interest, only remarking with a doubtful look at the pale sky:
“It’s rain we need . . .”
But the snow went on falling throughout the day. In the early evening it turned to sleet and by midnight it was raining hard, filling dark ditches, furrows and potholes and rinsing the small trees free of their burden. At four in the morning the lights of a van shone through the heavy rain, illuminating a stretch of the unmade road that connected the hilltop villages of Taverna and Pontino. The van stopped and its lights went out for a few moments before it backed up, turned and drove away showing blurred red tail-lights.
When the noise of the engine died away, slurred footsteps could be heard moving forward in the darkness. When they passed the gate of a farmhouse a dog began to bark but no light went on. The dog lost interest as the steps faded into the distance. At a bend in the road, marking the beginning of Pontino, an icon was framed by a little stone arch. Only the pinpoint of red light and the plastic flowers in a jamjar at its feet were visible. When the footsteps reached the icon they stopped. The tiny red lamp gave off a faint pink light which showed the slight form of a girl who reached out a hand towards the icon and then collapsed, hitting her forehead on one of the jutting stones of its arch. For over an hour the rain beat heavily on the grass, the arch and the crumpled figure, then the girl got to her feet and stumbled on towards the village of Pontino, sometimes wandering off the road, confused by more little red lights that appeared all around her. In the piazza there was one window lit but the girl, instead of making for the light, walked round in circles bumping into trees, benches and lamp posts in the darkness. It was only after some time, and then by accident, that she found herself looking in at the lighted window.
The rain beat on her head and swilled down the glass beyond which she saw a blur of flowers. In the middle of the flowers sat a gnome-like figure wearing a large green apron and a striped turban. He was rocking to and fro, apparently crooning to himself while dipping a long wooden painting brush into big pots of brightly coloured paint.
He daubed the paint onto the white daisies in his lap, turning them turquoise, magenta and blue.
Above the daubing figure was a tiny red light and a plaster figure of the Virgin dandling a chipped baby. The flowers in the vase at the foot of the statue were plastic. The painted face of the Virgin stared out of the window with a faint smile as the girl lifted a wet cold hand to tap at the glass.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The first I¿ve read, this is the third novel in Nabb¿s series of police procedurals set around Florence and featuring Marshal Guarnaccia. I was recommended this series by friend LizF who kindly sent me this one to get me started. Nabb, who died in 2007, wrote fourteen novels in the series which started back in 1981. It¿s March in Florence and snowing. With the unusual weather, no-one notices the abduction of two foreign language students. One is later released with a message for the girl¿s parents, but won¿t talk. The carabinieri suspect the Sardinian shepherds who live in the hills above the city, most local kidnappings are down to them, but they don¿t have much information to go on. Leading the case is Captain Maestrangelo and his team, working with a new Prosecutor to get the girl back alive, before the girl¿s father can pay the ransom. The Captain believes they¿re dealing with amateurs this time, and that the girl will die unless they get to her first.Although the Carabinieri are structured quite differently from our police, they go about finding the missing girl in much the same way ¿ particularly in that there¿s no substitute for local knowledge. Knowing your patch like the back of your hand, what goes on in it, and who does what is essential to their policework as the Marshal and other team members are well aware. Of the other characters, the young Carabiniere Bacci, proves very useful as an English speaker, teasing information out of the released girl; and the new prosecutor, whom the Captain always refers to as the Substitute, is a lively sort who brings a little cheer to this rather serious novel. The Marshal is, this time, a supporting character to the double-act of the Captain and the Substitute, but from his few appearances, you know you will like him ¿ an older policeman with the intuition of experience. What is most surprising is the poverty that the Sardinians live in up there, no wonder the sons grow up wanting to get out of this close-knit community and choose crime as an easy route to money. We see little of tourists¿ Florence in this novel, the city locations are mostly those of workers, as are those in the hillsides ¿ no-one ever said a shepherd¿s life was easy. The policework is thorough and solid, like the novel itself which is rather serious. We don¿t learn anything about the policemen¿s private lives here, it¿s all about the case, unlike those of Donna Leon where Comissario Brunetti¿s family co-star, and Camilleri¿s Inspector Montalbano where food and his girlfriend play second fiddle, along with their locations in both cases. I am definitely interested in reading more of the series though and in particular, getting to meet the Marshal properly. (7/10) I was given this book.
3rd in the Marshal Guarnaccia series.A young American student is kidnapped in broad daylight in March, during an unusual snowstorm that so distracts the Florentines that the Marshal can not find anyone who witnessed the crime. The kidnapped woman¿s friend, another foreign student, is released with a message for the victim¿s parents. Because kidnapping is practically an industry with the Sardinians who occupy the hills surrounding Florence, the carabinieri are well-versed in hostage technique and the difficult job of getting the victim back¿alive.This, then, is the setting. What follows is a fascinating look at Sardinian culture as lived on the mainland, in the mountains around Florence. Enlivening the book no end is the cast of characters. Carrabiniere Bacci appears once again, as his English language skills come in handy in communicating with the kidnapped woman¿s friend (with the predictable result that he half falls in love with the young woman). A new substitute Prosecutor from Milan is hardly cast in the usual mode, and his cigars and comments add a great deal to the story. Carabinieri life outside the urban area is explored for what it is¿getting to know the people, all the details of their lives and habits, the countryside counterpart to Guarnaccia¿s (himself from a Sicilian peasant family) urban obsession with serving the ¿ordinary¿ people of his Quarter. Captain Maestrangelo, ever more respectful of Guarnaccia¿s intuitive talents, adds his usual efficient, somber presence. And the Stockholm Syndrome makes its appearance.The understated writing, the fully-realized characters, and believable plots, as well as the very evocative setting in Florence set this series far and above the ordinary in police procedurals. This one is no exception¿it is a real page-turner quietly building up suspense until you are racing through at he end to see the well-thought out denouement.Highly recommended.
Georges Simenon wrote a letter to his "friend and fellow author," Magdalen Nabb, saying this book "...is the first time I have seen the theme of kidnapping treated so simply and so plausibly." The letter is published at the beginning of the book, where one might expect a Preface. With good reason. Her main character of the series, Marshal Guarnaccia, plays a small role in this book, but the Sardinian shepherds, the Substitute Prosecutor, Captain whose case it is, the young foreign students, the father of the young woman who was kidnapped, her step-mother, and many more characters are wonderfully drawn and believable.