Magdalen Nabb - Exclusive Interview - Part 1 -

Exclusive Interview with Magdalen Nabb

Florence, Italy
September 10, 2004
(original transcription)

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?” “Why am I sitting in this place?” “Why am I here?” I’d been potting, which I did already in England. Eventually, I wrote a play first and it was put on in London. I wasn’t very happy about that. They offered me to do another one, but I said, “No, I’m going home to write a novel.”

I sort of wrote it in my head in one night, through the night. It was like watching a film. Marshal Guarnaccia and company were in this film that I’d watched that night and they came from my experiences when I was a potter. When I was being a potter in the pottery town of Montelupo Fiorentino and there was only one restaurant. And everybody ate there, because they were all potters. And 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 there was an enormous risk in this place. You’ve read The Marshal and the Murderer. I was at risk, at the very least being pestered by them. It was this place where there was this criminal lunatic asylum. 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 weird place. So I always had to eat with the Carabinieri and that’s how I met Guarnaccia, this big fat miserable 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 place where there was big fire and meat roasting on the fire and minestrone. They taught me how to make it.

And this big fat uniformed man would be sitting opposite me eating this 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. And he cried 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 to live. He cried all the time because he was allergic, but everything he said to you was so sad anyway. And this young man who was always with him became Bacci, the good looking one. And so these two, who were from years before, just appeared in my film. The story was set in the house I was living in. It was in San Felice, but I put it in via Maggio, officially. I try to avoid using addresses. That was the house in via Maggio, that belonged in San Felice. That was the building the book was set in. So, I just watched this film that was everything that was going on.

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 the publisher in England. I didn’t know anyone who lived there. I posted it off in a plain brown cover. They wrote back saying that they had bought it, sent the contract and they said, “We will have as many of these as you can possibly produce.” So I’d already written another one by the time that came up.

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 only was because people reacted to him, you see. He was in bed with the flu through the whole book. He got up on the last day, put the poor man in jail, and 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 actual real one used to help me with the books. That was a very strange story. But he happens to be involved. As you said, the Captain had a very big part and I’d never been into the Pitti station, because you can’t go in there. And I’d never been to Borgognissanti Headquarters either. 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 in there. I couldn’t go and knock on his door, especially when you haven’t published anything yet. Now I can go anywhere I like. So my son used to go in there to play and come back tell me all the stuff because he was allowed to go places where I couldn’t go. When he was older, he became a DJ with all the DJ stuff, and from the discotheque he gave me all the criminal world--what was going on there. He’s always been good on this. So, I hadn’t been to Borgo Ognissanti ever.

When I started the second book, I wrote a scene in which the Marshal goes over there to see his boss and they went downstairs together and had a coffee together inside the bar. 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 and has to go maybe to another city, he 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 said 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 that’s impossible. I really wanted to know. I had been already to the noncommissioned officers school near the station where they train Marshals for the whole country. And I’d been there--I’d managed to get my foot in the door there by writing an article for an American newspaper when they were have a big army day with parachutes and all. So I wrote an article for their own daily news and got in and interviewed the commander of the school. An when leaving, I said, “I was actually writing this book about an investigation of a crime.” He said, “Oh, I see. You have the right mentality for it, that’s for sure.” Anyway, he decided to help me and so he gave me his adjutant to help me. I remember they did a parade of uniforms for me of the different grades and I wrote down what they were. You know, everyone likes attention--they just like showing off. So I went there and asked the adjutant if they can 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, there’s no bar.” I had written this--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 would be coffee machines.” I just didn’t go away because I just didn’t believe him. And 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 Borgo Ognissanti and taken to the bar which 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 got 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 is the Captain Maestrangelo. He looked exactly like him. Their personalities were alike. And if you read it you would recognize him. I had already written him in the first book and I was already on the second one. So then he gets hold of the first book and calls me back in and he said, “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 is very 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 can stay at his house and everything. I say, “For God’s sake smile for me.” But he never does. He never does. So he found himself. And this happens all the time. 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 you’ve made it up. You can get it in the most awful trouble.

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. So they have to be where he can go. Which can be a problem, because a noncommissioned officer, which is what he is, is very limited by that. It’s a very good thing because he knows that little quarter very well, he knows all the people and unlike, say a Maigret. When Maigret goes out on an inquiry he would have to start sniffing around to get to know all the people. The Marshal knows everybody before he starts and he has a relationship with the people.

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

Nabb: I chose to write about the Carabinieri because they are already there. They are not there just because there’s a crime. They’re already in your life. You already have a relationship with the Marshal. In the old days and certainly 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. He is a point of reference if you want help if your son is taking drugs, but this still applies in a quarter like this one, which is pretty self-contained. It probably wouldn’t apply to something like Milan. But certainly, the Marshal at Pitti, who has just retired, knows every single shopkeeper; he knows 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. Always they go to him. So he doesn’t go out on a case starting from scratch; he goes out there and he knows everybody when he starts out. So it’s very difficult for ordinary police.

Q: How do cases get assigned?

Nabb: If you had a big case, you would have to assign it to somebody. Because somebody called you out, and they called the emergency number and the Magistrate would come along. If the emergency number is the Carabinieri one, then they will take it from there. If they called the Police emergency number, they would take over. Or if the Magistrate decides to prosecute something he suspects is going on, he will assign the case either to the Carabinieri or to the Police. But then it would go to headquarters. It wouldn’t come to a station like the Marshal’s. It’s actually quite a big section. It goes a long way down river. So he doesn’t determine what happens to him.

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

Nabb: It’s in the main Pitti Palace. As you go into the Pitti, to the left, there’s a huge gate there. It’s just in there to the left. So it’s in the left wing of the Pitti Palace.

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

Nabb: 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 I think that the Villa Torrini book is set in winter but I think it was February. The first four books were the four seasons. The four seasons is something that you do here as part of the culture. You even have a pizza which is four seasons. When I was a potter, which I was before I was a writer, we used to make majolica plates with four seasons. It’s something you do, part of life. So I did the four season 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. I find it useful because it means because he’s a foreigner he has to keep getting explanations of things. He doesn’t know what Misericordia is, so he can ask somebody. And if he were a Florentine, there’s no way I could explain it. I don’t want to overload people with information, but on the other hand something as weird as Misericordia has to have an explanation. Because he’s a foreigner, he can ask. So, I have a very difficult problem with his sidekick Lorenzini because he’s a Florentine.

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

Nabb: Prosecutors are awful. When you think about it, they come out of University and start giving orders to policemen. The policemen are doing their job and they have to take orders from them. They run the inquiry. Their the last thing you need--they are so arrogant. They get very bad press. They don’t know anything about the job. The whole situation is awful. They tried to change the system in 1993--they changed it a lot. The rules were changed because of the European courts. It’s supposed to be more like the Anglo-Saxon system. Of course it didn’t take. I found myself sitting in court and a lawyer stood up and he said, “I have up to now heard no absolute proof that this man is innocent.” And nobody blinked. I talked to the judge later because I had met him at lunch and said, “You know, you think you’ve changed your system but ...” The system up to here was mixed. It was inquisitorial/accusatory. At the first stage of the inquiry that was inquisitorial. But the court debate that came up was accusatorial. By that time it was open and shut, there were no witnesses called or anything. So they changed it--now we have to prove they are guilty. But nobody takes any notice. Out of fourteen homicides, the lawyer stands up and says, “I haven’t any proof they are innocent.” And nobody flickers. And I spoke to the judge. He didn’t notice. You can’t change people’s mentality overnight, you can change the rules... We’re in Italy--no, you can’t do that.

There was one good Prosecutor--he’s in Death in Springtime. The Captain couldn’t stand him because he found him so unorthodox. He smoked cigars--the little Tuscan ones that are so lethal. They would poison rats. He was so unorthodox and so kind of wild and the Captain thought he seemed to be just amusing himself. And really that he may as well be somewhere doing something else. And he was absolutely unserious. And he was hugely enjoying himself. And he hugely enjoyed Guarnaccia. He thought Guarnaccia was an absolute gas. And poor Guarnaccia had no idea what was going on. And all that smoke drove him crazy. He didn’t like him at all. And then he disappeared and popped up again in the Villa Torrini book because he was a friend of that woman. And Guarnaccia said, “Oh, him again.” So he’s the only one who was fun, he was great fun. He was just amusing himself and the only scene which he was serious was the end of Death in Springtime when he was in bed with his mistress. But the rest of the time he was messing around.