Marshal Salvatore Guarnaccia of the Florentine Carabinieri wants to go south for Christmas to spend the holiday with his family in Sicily, but a retired Englishman living in Florence has been murdered. Who has shot Mr. Langley-Smythe in the back? The marshal must discover the identity of the criminal and the motive for the crime before he can take the train home for the holidays.
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The small office was in darkness, except where the red night lamp stood by the telephone on the desk, and the white kid gloves lying on top of a sheaf of papers within the patch of light were flushed pink. A black uniform jacket was hung over the back of a swivel chair and a matching military greatcoat, lined with red, was buttoned neatly on to a hanger behind the door, alongside a well-brushed hat. There was just room in the office for a camp bed along one white-painted wall, and on the camp bed, his legs carefully placed so as not to crease the red stripe down his trousers, lay Carabiniere Bacci. He was doing night duty. The features of his Florentine face were serene. He was asleep.
He was very young and he slept deeply, with a copy of the Codice di Procedura Penale open on his chest and a handbook of military tactics on the floor beside him. His idea had been to stay awake all night and study, but the closeness 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 pool of light. Carabiniere Bacci had leapt to his feet before he was awake and saluted before he was on his feet. When he realized what the noise was, he grabbed the receiver quickly before it could wake the Marshal. A small, distressed voice said:
‘Marshal Guarnaccia, Marshal . . . you’d better come round here right away, it’s the Englishman, he—
‘Just a moment.’ Carabiniere Bacci felt about for the main light switch and picked up a pencil.
‘This is not Marshal Guarnaccia, this is Carabiniere Bacci speaking, who’s that?’
There was a pause, then the voice continued obediently, ‘Cipolla, Gianpaolo Maria.’
‘And the address?’
‘My address?’ The voice was so weak that Carabiniere Bacci wondered if he were speaking to a man or a boy.
‘Your address and the address you’re speaking from if they’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 husband being a gardener in the Boboli, so I know him—and the Marshal . . .’
‘Might I ask you,’ said Carabiniere Bacci with all the cold dignity of his two months’ practical experience, ‘just what you’re doing in Via Maggio in the middle of the night if you live down Via Romana?’
Another pause. Then the small voice said, ‘But . . . it’s morning . . . I work here.’
‘I see. Well. Stay where you are and I’ll be over there in five minutes.’ Carabiniere Bacci pulled on his jacket and greatcoat and adjusted his hat and kid gloves carefully. It distressed him not to wash and shave but the matter might be urgent . . . he hesitated, looking toward the door that led to the Marshal’s living quarters and then back at the door where his coat had hung and where a Beretta nine was now visible, hung up with its white leather holster and webbing. The Marshal was sweating in bed with the onset of flu, which was why Carabiniere Bacci had insisted on sleeping in the office instead of going upstairs to bed—quite unnecessarily, in the Marshal’s opinion—but Carabiniere Bacci was known as the ‘perfect student.’ Quietly he took down the gun, checked it and strapped it on with an eye on the inner door. He ought to wake the Marshal, perhaps, or phone through to Borgo Ognissanti in case he needed help . . . but if he phoned Headquarters they would surely tell him to stay where he was and they’d send an Officer . . . Carabiniere Bacci had never in his life been near the scene of a crime . . . still . . . he was drumming softly with his gloved fingers on the desk. The Marshal had said that if anything important came up—it might not be anything at all, of course—nothing ever did happen at Stazione Pitti . . .
Carabiniere Bacci did not like the Marshal. In the first place because he was Sicilian and he suspected him of being, if not actually Mafia, at least mafioso, and he knew that the Marshal knew of his suspicion and even encouraged it. He seemed to think it was funny. He disliked the Marshal in the second place because he was too large and fat and had an embarrassing eye complaint—embarrassing to Carabiniere Bacci—that caused him to weep copiously during the hours of sunlight. And since he continually mourned the absence of his wife and children who were at home in Syracuse, his rolling tears often seemed distressingly real—distressing to Carabiniere Bacci. The Marshal himself would fish unperturbedly for the dark glasses that were always in one of his voluminous pockets and explain to anyone and everyone, ‘It’s all right, just a complaint I have. It’s the sunshine starts it off.’
He thought he wouldn’t wake the Marshal. Via Maggio was only two steps away. He could be there and back in ten minutes and then wake him if it seemed necessary. He stepped outside and locked the office door.
The caller had been right—it was morning, just about. A sluggish, damp December dawn. Thick yellow fog rose off the river and seeped along the narrow streets to deaden Carabiniere Bacci’s footsteps as he came out under the dark, stone archway and crossed the sloping forecourt of the Pitti palace. The few ghostly cars that had been left there all night were misted with fine droplets of moisture. He crossed the silent piazza and cut through an alley that slit the high buildings dividing Piazza Pitti from Via Maggio. He was shivering inside his heavy greatcoat, aware of the whole city sleeping behind closed shutters. The streetlights were still on, but since the narrow passage had only one iron lamp at each end, Carabiniere Bacci had to tread carefully, squeezing past the inevitable line of illegally parked mopeds, his nose discreetly lifted against the stench of drains that hung in the dawn fog and that would not be dispersed until the rush-hour traffic drove it off and replaced it with exhaust fumes. Halfway along the alley, at its gloomiest point, he stumbled on to a Coca-Cola can that rolled away along the uneven flags, rattling his nerves. When he came out in Via Maggio he stopped, wondering which way to go. To his right, the street of tall Renaissance palaces went along to the river and the Santa Trinita bridge, invisible now in the fog; to his left, a shorter stretch of the street led to a tiny triangular piazza where it met the road coming from the Pitti. Consulting both the red and black numbering systems carefully, Carabiniere Bacci turned left toward the little piazza and crossed over . . . 52 . . . 106 red . . . 108 red . . . the faint old red numbers were barely visible in the gray half-light but the large black ones stood out clearly on their white plates and it was a black one he was looking for . . . 54 . . . 110 red . . . 56 . . . 58. There was an indecipherable coat of arms carved in stone at first-floor level. The gigantic, iron-studded doors reached up to the coat of arms, and the shutters on all three upper floors were closed. No thread of light was showing to indicate which floor the call had come from and Carabiniere Bacci realized now that he had forgotten to ask what name to look for. There was a bank housed in the ground floor of the building and a shop with its metal shutter down. The shop marked the end of Via Maggio and faced the little piazza. It was the shop which eventually reminded him—an Englishman—he’d read it somewhere . . . ‘A nation of shopkeepers’ . . . he ran a whitegloved finger delicately down the polished brass bellplate, peering closely at the list of names . . . Frediani . . . Cipriani . . . Cesarini . . . no . . . A. Langley-Smythe, that would be it on the ground-floor right—but surely not the ground floor? The nameplate on the bell opposite was blank, must be a porter’s lodge. Up on the top floor left was another English name: ‘Miss E. White,’ with, in brackets, ‘Landor.’ But the caller had certainly said a man. He rang the ground-floor bell. No answer. He rang again, bending to put his ear to the speaker. Nothing. It could be a hoax . . . or even a trap of some sort, it often happened . . . he’d heard stories . . . he was getting a little nervous. It could be some Sicilian who had it in for the Marshal . . . or terrorists! ‘Nothing ever happens at Stazione Pitti,’ he repeated to himself quietly, and then he heard footsteps. They seemed near but they couldn’t be coming from inside the building, nothing could be heard beyond those doors. The footsteps were coming round the corner beyond the shop, slow, heavy steps. A dark figure emerged from the fog; it was the private night guard on his round.
‘Open up for me,’ demanded Carabiniere Bacci when the guard reached him. ‘There’s something wrong in here.’
‘Nothing wrong when I last passed,’ said the guard phlegmatically, pushing back his cap. He selected a key from the rattling bunch in his hand, unlocked one of the great doors and leaned on it with his shoulder enough to open it a couple of feet. He tossed in the white ticket that proved to the residents that he had done his round, then stood back. His radio coughed suddenly into life and just as suddenly silenced itself with a whistle.
‘And is that all you did on your last round?’ asked Carabiniere 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 might want you to take a message . . .’ Carabiniere Bacci wished again that he’d had time to shave. He felt less confident than when he’d first stepped out of the office.
‘I’m off home,’ said the guard. ‘My last round. Bank guard should be here at eight.’ He walked on with deliberate steps, selected another key and vanished into the next big doorway. Well, the bank guard, when he came, was sure to be an ex-carabiniere and more helpful. Carabiniere Bacci pushed at the studded oak with his shoulder until the door opened enough to admit him.
A wide, stone-flagged passage, ill-lit by a tiny night-light, led to a pair of high, wooden carriage gates which would presumably open on to the central courtyard of the building. Carabiniere Bacci felt for a switch and turned on a marginally stronger bulb hanging in a spiked iron lantern before the gates. To his right was the staff entrance to the bank, to his left a disused porter’s lodge with the inquiry window boarded up. Walking slowly and loudly on the flagged floor, he reached the locked gates and followed a smaller passage round to the left where a wide stone staircase led to the upper floors. At the bottom of the staircase, on the left, were the tenants’ letter-boxes, on the right, a lift and a door which looked as if it might lead to a storeroom. A crack of yellow light was showing round this door. The name on the bell was A. Langley-Smythe. Carabiniere Bacci’s loud footfall stopped. With one gloved finger he pushed gently on the door until it swung open. A parchment lamp was lit on a dusty, littered desk. Beyond it the room was gloomy and he didn’t see A. Langley-Smythe at first. He did see, sitting by the lamp in an upright chair as if he were on guard, a tiny, ashen-faced man with a brush of spiky hair and a black cotton overall.
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"A coupe de maitre, as we say in French... One of the tastiest books I have read for years."—Georges Simenon
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"Neatly plotted and well written. It is a more than sparkling debut."—Times Literary Supplement
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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.
Perhaps I was distracted at the time; however, I plodded through this book thoroughly confused. By the end of the story I no longer cared 'whodunnit'.