Magdalen Nabb - Bouchercon 2001 Panel - Cops Around the World

Magdalen Nabb At

Bouchercon 2001 - A Capitol Mystery
The 32nd World Mystery Convention 
November 1-4, 2001, Arlington, VA

Bouchercon Panel #30, 02-Nov-2001 Deen Kogan (moderator),
Cara Black, Rhys Bowen, Dan Fesperman, J. Robert Janes, and Magdalen Nabb.

      Cops Around the World
Take an armchair tour to cop shops in foreign countries!

Here are the excerpted comments made by Magdalen Nabb, who participated on the above panel:
(© Magdalen Nabb and Bouchercon 2001)

Q: Tell us about your cop shop.

Magdalen Nabb: I come from Florence, Italy. A lot of you have been to Florence, I know. If you haven’t, you have still seen pictures of the main monuments there, the Ponte Vecchio, the Palazzo Pitti; so you have something of an idea because it’s an international city in many ways. The cop shop problem is a bit of a problem, indeed, for me. I think I live in a country which has more police forces than any other country in the world. My last count there were fourteen. I only deal with the Carabinieri, who are a military force. And their cop shops are rather particular. The main one where all my stories start is in the Palazzo Pitti, which was built a few centuries ago by a certain Lucca Pitti and put in the hands of the Medici. A little wing of it is now in the hands of the Carabinieri, who investigate the crimes in my books. When the Marshal who runs that station in the Pitti goes to see his commander, he crosses the river Arno on a bridge with four statues at the four corners, the Ponte Santa Trinita. A wonderful bridge which was bombed in the days of World War II. And the four statues were in the river. The bridge was completely destroyed. The English and American soldiers who were there crossed the river by fording it. And afterwards, the Florentines rebuilt the bridge stone by stone exactly as it had been. And then, dug out the statues from the riverbed, because they wanted them back. When they’d done that they put them up and there was one head missing. They advertised around the world and an Australian soldier coughed it up. He’d taken it home. He brought it back so now the Marshal can cross the bridge with four statues in tact. And he goes to the Convent of Ognissanti which is now a deconsecrated building with cloisters and monk cells and that is the head of the Carabinieri for that part of Florence. So his Captain is in a monk cell and behind his head is one of many beautiful paintings belonging to an important collection in Florence which is housed there because nobody knows where to put it. At least it will be safe there, won’t it? So the cars that go out on emergency duty scream out with their sirens going just like any American cop car, but they come out from a cloister. So the cop shop is a little bit different than usual.

Q: Tell us about your top Cop.

Magdalen Nabb: My Marshal Guarnaccia is Signore Plod because it may be on the Ponte Vecchio but it doesn’t change anything. He is the man on the street. He’s the man you go to when you loose your cat. Whereas policemen, actual policeman about whom I never write, you only see them when a crime has been committed, and when it’s finished they leave. The Marshal of your quarter is the man who comes around when you’re upset because your neighbor is dropping fags on you from above. You know we live on top of each other and people throw cigarette ends at you, or make too much noise. You loose your cat. Your son may be taking drugs so you think you need to talk to someone and he’s your man. He’s your man on the spot. And so when a crime does happen he has to deal with it, but at that point he has people everywhere who he’s helped and they will always help him. A Policeman will never have that relationship with his people. The rest of the time he’s just dealing with tourists. He’s in despair. If you police the area near the Ponte Vecchio, you’re driven crazy by people coming into your office saying, “I’ve lost my camera.” “Oh, where did you loose it?” “In Pisa.” And then they get so mad when you can’t do anything about it. And he says, “Every year I don’t know why they come here. Why don’t they stay at home.” He cannot understand why people would leave their own country, their own language and their own food and come trailing around this city. And he can hear them winching about the Palazzo Pitti. “You know, this is a very important building. Put that ice cream down. Now we’ve got lost--who’s got the map?” He doesn’t understand a word of it but he knows exactly what they’re all saying. And he says, “What do they come here for? Why don’t they stay at home?” So they’re the bane of his life and he’s just Mr. Plod.

Q: Is your Cop based on a real person?.

Magdalen Nabb: Yes, he’s a real man because before I was a writer I was a potter and I worked in Montelupo Fiorentino which is the pottery producing area just outside Florence. And I went there to work. Got up at five in the morning and went to this place to make pots. I was the only woman in a factory. I was only young and I didn’t speak much Italian, so I was considered a high risk prospect. Now that I know that city better, I realize that I was at risk. The criminal asylum is there and I don’t think you know this, but whenever you put a criminal asylum it will fill itself up from the surrounding area. It’s an extraordinary thing but it’s true. So the criminal asylum contains some very odd people and the town itself was very inbred. The Medici had opened the potteries there to serve their castle which is now the criminal asylum. And things have gone on pretty much the same for a few hundred years until I went down and became the only woman to work in the potteries. At lunchtime we ate in a big restaurant--the only restaurant in this little town. And there was a huge wonderful room with a big fire at the end and checkered tablecloths and glasses of wine and all the workmen from the potteries eating their pasta. And then there was a very smart room, a smaller room, with beautiful Majorca plates on the walls where the German and English and French buyers came to have lunch with the factory owners. The idea of the proprietor of the restaurant was that I as a foreigner at risk and a lady should eat in that plush room. I was all out of my head with these smart people and I said, “That’s not me, I want to be in there with the news on the telly and the glasses of wine. I want to see what everybody’s doing.” He didn’t like that. So the way the problem was solved was what determined my career for the next 25 years. The problem was solved by saying, “You can eat in the big room, Bambina, if you sit with the Carabinieri.” Who came in from the local station where they didn’t have kitchens and they had their dinner there in the warmth by the fire and so on.

So I was put at this table and in front of me is an enormous mountain of a man in uniform with black glasses on, very morose. And next to him a very handsome, very young flashy Carabinieri. And the young flashy one wanted to flash with me--a stranger, female, English girl. He was very handsome, but he wasn’t making much of an effect because the big fat man was crying into his minestrone. He always had minestrone and so did I. And we used to face each other and I tried to say my two words of Italian. And tears would roll down his cheeks and go plop into the minestrone throughout the meal. He tried to talk to me. He told me a lot of things but I couldn’t understand him and I could hear that he had a strange accent. And I managed to understand with a bit of help that his wife and children were still in Sicily. He hadn’t found accommodations for them in Florence. And this made him look as if he really was crying, because he would say, “Well, I miss my children.” And the young one says, “Yea, I’m never going to make a hit with this woman because I’ve got this next to me.” It was a real torment to him. I worked in that place for a few months, I think three months, and then I stopped going there. Getting up a five in the morning was pretty awful. And I did other things, I went on to look after the Browning house in central Florence. And I forgot about this man for about six years and then I decided to write a crime story set in Florence. And I invented the whole story in one night like watching a film. And who should walk into the part where the body was but this huge, fat man weeping. And there he stayed in my life. I couldn’t get him out. And he was one of three characters in that story and he wasn’t even in it very much but that was his story. But he had a grip on the whole situation because he was the one who knew all the people in the quarter. You know, the flash officer coming in and the young man from the restaurant who was trying to make a big impression as a detective were getting nowhere and it was the Marshal who had flu and didn’t want to be bothered eventually got out of his bed and arrested the man because he knew everybody there. So there he was and there he stayed because the people said, “We want him.” They didn’t want the fancy young officer, they didn’t want the fancy, rather suave Captain. They wanted the big fat Marshal who’s weeping the whole time and seemed to be very sad. And sometimes, he’s so very sad and indeed you don’t know as a reader and I’m not always sure myself if he’s really crying or not. But there he is--Mr. Plod l’italiano.

Q: The events of September 11th can’t be ignored.
Is what’s happening in the world currently going to impact what you write?
Is it going to impact what you read and what you want to read?

Magdalen Nabb: I don’t write the most comforting things. It won’t change what I write. I’ve written and I’ve lived with terrorism for more than twenty years. I’ve written a book about terrorism. What I think is that something will change for you. I lived with it for a long time and written about it. I don’t offer any sort of easy comfort. I do offer the fact that life goes on and I think that my Marshal will lead you by the hand and you will carry on because he’s there. I think people need stories. When we’re small and we’re afraid of the dark we need stories and I write stories for children. But I think that we all need stories all of our lives. And when we see this chaos in the world, we want to be told stories. And we do want what is fashionably called closure. And closure is not necessarily an easy answer. It’s not the little stain in the library that’s removed and everybody goes back to their rightful places in the class system. We can’t offer that because it’s not helpful--it’s escapism. But closure in a story does help to make some order out of chaos. So as it won’t change my world because terrorism is part of it and has been as long as I’ve been writing. It will change yours and I think were more interested to hear from you on this than you are from us. Because I think that what is needed now is constant vigilance which is the price of your freedom. Up to now I think there hasn’t been a price put on freedom here. And now the real world has arrived, there is a price and--it’s not, be careful how you open your mail--it’s not, look out when you’re on top of a high building--it’s be careful of legislation that’s pushed through on the back of these events for the purposes required by politicians. We suffered this dreadfully in Italy. Your freedom is there. Your freedom is the rule of law and hard cases make bad law. And they make laws pushed through in the middle of the night. I’ve seen laws pushed through on New Years Eve, at midnight that nobody ever notices. That’s where your freedom lies. In your own country, in your own rule of law. And people will try and push through a lot of very very iffy legislation on the back of these events. And there you must be vigilant. Not opening your letters, but with your own system protected.

Q: Are policing methods particular to a given culture?
Is the motivation of cops around the world universal?

Magdalen Nabb: I have some doubts, because I have found one very big difference between the Mediterranean and the Anglo-Saxon culture in police. It’s not a permanent state of affairs but it is very very strong. And that is that we Anglo-Saxons, when we see a problem we want to solve the problem. There’s satisfaction in it. It’s an achievement. There is no word for achievement in Italian. An Italian policeman who sees a murder looks at it and says, “Will this do my career any good or will it do my career any harm?” And you will find this in my books all the time. The Marshal is not an ambitious man, at all. But he does not want to be transferred out of Florence to some end of the world--Siberia of Italy. And so he has to tread very very carefully. And the minute he is confronted with a body and he sees, as he does on occasion, the name on the door is hyphenated about fifteen times. It is not without exception, but I think it’s not the only driving force. I do think we have some, particularly forensic scientists, for example in England, who will work a case for thirty years until they come up with a solution. There was one case of a woman who was murdered thirty years before and the forensic scientist was given after thirty years from a building site a piece of skull and he rebuilt that woman’s head and he put a face on it and he put hair on it and he found out who she was. Nobody in Italy would do that. There’s no question. Nobody would do that. That is passion for what you’re doing. So whether you may or not be ambitious is a separate issue. But that passion for problem solving doesn’t exist and I’ve worked with some very very good investigators who taught me how to investigate. They’ve been brilliant, but I have seen them take a call at my house for a murder and say, “No good to me, no good to you.” No good for a book for me. No good for his career. “Send the papers to Prato.”

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