I had almost forgotten about Magdalen Nabb; I’d certainly given up on her. She was one of those mystery writers who surfaced in the 1980s – Edmund Crispin, Sarah Caudwell, Julian Barnes writing as Dan Kavanagh – who brought a kind of arch self-awareness to the genre. Nabb wasn’t ironic, though. She didn’t need to be, since her novels were set in Florence. She intimated, gently, that the possibility of solving crime in Italy was in itself ironic. She also gave her detective, Marshal Guarnaccia, very large eyes (“the better to see with, my dear”) that were over-sensitive to light.
So here’s Nabb’s last novel, sadly. She hadn’t written many mysteries lately, having chosen instead to venture into children’s fiction. And she died of a stroke last year. Happily, Vita Nuova is excellent. Nabb is clearly very fond of her creation Guarnaccia but a slightly astringent attitude toward his masculine helplessness (his wife is away on vacation) leavens the faint predictability of the genre. The bad guys have to do with Eastern European sex slaves, a topic I think Donna Leon has covered recently. Various downtrodden women get killed or rescued or rehabilitated, while the Marshal nearly has to give up his job because of corruption in the legal system. He gets bailed out at the last moment by his superior – I’m not giving anything away here, you know all along he’s going to be OK – but it’s a close call. I don’t know whether Nabb’s reference to the “new life” of the title has something scholarly to do with Dante and Beatrice, or alludes directly to the life Guarnaccia was contemplating outside the army. Or maybe it’s the new life finally achieved by the most tragic female characters. In any event it’s a pleasant notion for a final achievement.