Magdalen Nabb - Exclusive Interview - Part One -

Exclusive Interview with Magdalen Nabb

Florence, Italy
September 10, 2004

Part One - Marshal Guarnaccia Crime Series

Q: Why did you start writing crime novels? Was there a model for your Marshal Guarnaccia character?

Magdalen Nabb:  I had been here, in Florence, about five years or so, thinking, as you do:  “What am I supposed to be doing?”  “Why am I here?”  I’d been potting, which I did already in England. Eventually, I wrote a play and it was put on in London. I wasn’t very happy about that. They asked me to do another one, but I said, “No, I’m going home to write a novel.”

I wrote it in my head in one night, lying awake. It was like watching a film. Marshal Guarnaccia and company were in this ‘film’ and they came from my experiences when I was a potter. When I was a potter, in the pottery town of Montelupo Fiorentino, there was only one restaurant and all the potters ate there. I was the only woman and I was very young then and I didn’t speak Italian. The owner of the restaurant made me eat with the carabinieri, because he told me I would be safe with them. You’ve read The Marshal and the Murderer. I was at risk, as a young foreign woman, at the very least of being pestered by the workmen. There is a criminal lunatic asylum in Montelupo. If ever you build a criminal lunatic asylum, it will fill up from the surrounding area. That’s a fact of life. It’s a very strange place, Montelupo. So I always had to eat with the carabinieri and that’s how I met Guarnaccia, this big fat sad man who cried all the time. We always used to have the most wonderful minestrone. The town was a rainy, freezing cold place. We’d go into this trattoria where there was big fire with meat roasting on it and a huge pot of minestrone. And this big fat uniformed man would be sitting opposite me eating his minestrone and his tears would be falling in it. I couldn’t speak Italian, but he managed to explain to me that he was allergic to the sun so that his eyes watered all the time. I also managed to understand, bit by bit, that his wife and children were in Sicily and that he couldn’t find a house for them up here. He cried all the time because he was allergic, but everything he said to you was so sad, anyway. This man became the physical model for Marshal Guarnaccia, and a young carabiniere who always came and ate with him became Bacci, the good looking young carabiniere in Death of an Englishman. And so these two, who were from years before, just appeared in the ‘film’ running through my head that night. The story was set in the house I was living in which was once the home of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett.   

Q: After the first book did you think about a second, or did the publisher want you to do a second?

Nabb:  I wrote the first two in the same year. I posted off the first one to a publisher in England. I didn’t know anyone in the publishing world. I posted it off to ‘The crime editor’. They wrote back with a contract and they said, “ We will have as many of these as you can possibly produce.” I was already writing the second one, Death of a Dutchman, by then.

Q: In Death of an Englishman, the Marshal had a relatively small part. It seemed that Captain Maestrangelo was the main character. When did it become the Marshal’s series?

Nabb:  It was because people reacted to him so positively. He was in bed with the ‘flu’ through the whole book. He got up on the last day, put the poor man in jail, then got on a train and went to Sicily. So he wasn’t any sort of star. But people wanted him--they always wanted him.

And there was the third book where I gave more space to the Captain--the kidnapping book. Because the Captain, the real one, used to help me with the books. That was a very strange story. As you said, the Captain had a very big part in the first book, yet I’d never been into the Borgognissanti headquarters, any more than I’d ever been inside the Pitti Station. My son, who was about twelve then, used to play with the Marshal’s little boy. So he used to go in there and he would tell me what was there. I couldn’t go and knock on his door, claiming to be a writer doing research since I hadn’t published anything yet. Now I can go anywhere I like, but in those days my son used to go in there to play and come back tell me all about it.

So, I hadn’t been to Pitti or Borgognissanti ever. When I started the second book, I wrote a scene in which the Marshal went over there to see his boss and they went downstairs and had a coffee together inside the bar within the barracks. And then I had doubts about it because in England the police are very class-ridden. When an officer who goes out on a case has to go maybe to another city, he often takes a noncommissioned officer with him which would be like the Captain and the Marshal. They are not allowed to stay in the same hotel. I thought, what if it’s like that here and I have no idea because I’ve never set foot in these places and don’t know anything about this except for these people I met in the restaurant. I don’t know what I’m doing here and maybe their having that coffee together is impossible. I really wanted to know. The one carabinieri barracks I’d been into was the non-commissioned officers school near the station where they train Marshals for the whole country. I’d managed to get my foot in the door there by getting myself a commission to write an article for the Rome Daily News about the carabinieri. I interviewed the commander of the school and, as I was leaving, I confessed, “I’m actually writing this book about the investigation of a crime.” He said, “Oh, I see. You have the right mentality for it, that’s for sure.” He’d understood that the article, though real, was also a pretence. Anyway, he decided to help me and told his adjutant to teach me something about the carabinieri. I remember they did a parade of uniforms for me to help me get to know the different grades and I wrote notes and did drawings. You know, everyone likes attention.

So I went to the school when the coffee problem came up in the second book and I asked the adjutant if they could have this coffee together. He said, “No, they can’t have the coffee together.” I said, “Why not? Is it because one is an officer and the other is not?” He said, “No, it’s because there’s no bar there.” I had already written the scene--Oh dear! I said, “That seems a bit funny to me because these people are working twenty-four hours a day and there’s nothing outside in the street that would be open at night.” He said, “For their meals, they come here. If they need a coffee, there are sure to be coffee machines.” I just didn’t go away because I just couldn’t believe him. Eventually, he became dubious himself. He picked up the phone and he called Borgognissanti and on the other end of the phone was a man called Captain D’Angelo. Now remember my Captain’s already operating under the name of Maestrangelo. Captain D’Angelo answers the phone and he’s the Captain that does that job. He said, “Of course, we’ve got a bar.” He said, “Send her over here.” I got sent to Borgognissanti and taken to the bar that was exactly where I had written it. Not that I knew anything about it, I made it up completely. But just logically speaking it’s was most likely to be where I put it. And there it was. So we went, this Captain and I, and had a coffee. And all the time I was getting more and more worried because I looked at this man and I realized he was Captain Maestrangelo. He looked exactly like him. Their personalities were alike. And anyone who read it would ‘recognize’ him. I had already written him in the first book and I was already on the second one. It was too late to do anything about it. I’d brought him the first book. He can read English so, needless to say, before long, I’m summoned again to his office. “So, I see you’ve got spies in here, have you?” He’d found himself. This happens to me all the time. What could I say? I said, “No, I don’t know anybody in here.” He said, “Then you’ve been in here before I came here.” I said, “No, I’ve never been in here. The first time I’ve been in here is when I came to see you last week. No, I don’t know anyone and you won’t find anyone who knows me here.” But he didn’t believe me.

Q: Is he the typical Captain type?

Nabb:  No, he’s unusual, very unusual. He is so serious. You know, he never smiles for me. I’ve known him now since 1980. We are very old friends. I say, “For God’s sake smile for me.” But he never does. Fortunately, he was pleased when he found himself in my books. This happens all the time and it’s got me into some quite serious trouble. When you have made something up there’s nothing you can say to convince people that that’s the case. You can’t prove a negative. You can get in the most awful trouble. In the captain’s case it ended happily. He still helps me with all my books and, by this time, neither of us knows where Maestrangelo ends and D’Angelo begins. After all these years, only one thing has changed: Captain D’Angelo is General D’Angelo now. I say he needn’t give himself airs when he’s at my house because here he’s a captain and staying that way. He says that’s all right by him because, at least in my books, he’ll never grow old.

Note: Magdalen Nabb dedicated her 12th book, Some Bitter Taste, as follows:
For invaluable help, as always, on matters regarding the
Carabinieri the author wishes to thank Generale Nicolino D’Angelo.

Q: Your books are set in specific places in Florence. Are all of these actual sites or do some come from your imagination?

Nabb:  Up to now they have all been real. They're all delineated by the area which my Marshal can deal with; he is geographically limited. They are all on the left bank of the Arno. The stories have to take place where he can go. That can be a problem because a noncommissioned officer, which is what he is, is very limited by that. It’s a very good thing in one respect because he knows that little quarter very well, he knows all the people unlike, say, Maigret. When Maigret goes out on an inquiry he has to start sniffing around to get to know all the people. The Marshal knows most of the people before he starts and he has a relationship with them.

Q: Why did you choose to write about the carabinieri?

Nabb:  I chose to write about the carabinieri because they are part of everyday life. They don’t only turn up when there’s a crime. People are likely to have a relationship with their local Marshal. In the old days, especially in the country, he would be one of the points of reference of any small town or village. The Marshal, the Magistrate, and the Priest. Some of that still lingers. People might go to him when they want help, for instance because their son or daughter is taking drugs. This still applies in a quarter like this one, which is pretty self-contained. It probably wouldn’t apply to a city like Milan. But certainly, the Marshal at Pitti, who has just retired, knows every single shopkeeper, every family, all their problems. And they go to him--the old lady who’s lost her cat, the parents who think their son is taking something, people who want their son to do his military service in the carabinieri, people who can’t find a house. So he doesn’t go out on a case starting from scratch; he goes out there with a good solid base and he’s got a better chance of getting cooperation from the public. It’s more difficult for the police who only deal with crime.

Q: How do cases get assigned?

Nabb:  It depends on who is called to the scene in the first instance, though on very big cases both police and carabinieri work the investigation.

Q: So, where is the Marshal’s Station located?

Nabb:  On the left bank of the river Arno inside the Pitti Palace.

Q: In your books one gets a strong sense of the seasons and the weather. Do you do that consciously?

Nabb:  Weather is supremely important to me. I’m trying to work out if I’ve set a book in every month of the year. I think I’m still missing one. I can’t think what it is. I have done twelve. January might be missing because the Villa Torrini book is set in winter but I think it was February. The first four books were each set in one of the four seasons. ‘The Four Seasons’ is something that you do here as part of the culture. It’s not just Vivaldi. There is even a pizza which is called ‘The Four Seasons’. When I was a potter, we used to make majolica plates with four seasons depicted on them. So I did ‘The Four Seasons’ in the books. After the first four, I have not consciously thought of doing one each month. The book I’m doing now is set in the end of May, the beginning of June. (#13 The Innocent)

Q: Why do you use non-Italian characters in your books?

Nabb:  I didn’t do it on purpose. Florence is an international city and there are always foreigners. I’m a foreigner, not a Florentine. The Marshal is a foreigner, more than I am, much more than I am because of the prejudice against southerners. I find it useful because it means he has to keep getting explanations of things. He doesn’t know what the Misericordia is, for example, so he has to ask. If he were a Florentine, there would be no way for me to explain it. I don’t want to overload people with information but, on the other hand, something as unusual as the Misericordia has to have an explanation. Because he’s a foreigner, he can ask. The Marshal’s second-in-command, Lorenzini, is Tuscan so he can often explain things. I enjoy the North/South tension between them. They don’t understand each other but they respect each other and only occasionally get annoyed.

Q: Why do you portray Prosecutors in such a bad light?

Nabb:  Prosecutors are problematical. When you think about it, they come out of University and start giving orders to experienced investigators. They run the inquiry. Some of them are arrogant. They tend to get a bad press. There were problems with the system in that the prosecutor who was meant to run an impartial inquiry, then acted for the prosecution in court. They changed the system in 1993 when all European courts were brought into line and the system became more like the Anglo-Saxon model. Of course it didn’t take overnight. I found myself sitting in court recently and a lawyer stood up and said, “I have, up to this point, heard no absolute proof that this man is innocent.” And nobody blinked. I talked to the Prosecutor General of that hearing later, when I happened to meet him at lunch, and I mentioned it. He hadn’t even noticed. The system here used to be mixed, inquisitorial/accusatorial. At the first stage, known as the Instruction, the system was inquisitorial—you had to defend yourself, prove your innocence. The court debate that followed was accusatorial—your guilt had to be proven. But, in those days, the court hearing was pretty much a formality, there were no witnesses called, no cross-examination. Now the procedure has changed but you can’t change people’s mentality overnight.

I do have one good Prosecutor--he’s in Death in Springtime. The Captain is disturbed by him because he finds him so unorthodox. He smokes cigars--the little Tuscan ones that are so pungent.  He is a bit wild and the Captain thinks he acts as though he is just amusing himself. He certainly relishes his job and he very much enjoys Guarnaccia. He thinks the Marshal is highly entertaining. Poor Guarnaccia has no idea what is going on and all that smoke drives him crazy. That Prosecutor pops up again in the Villa Torrini book because he is a friend of the woman who calls in the carabinieri. He regards Guarnacia as some kind of genius which dismays the Marshal who thinks very little of his own merits.