Saturday, September 19, 2009

Magdalen Nabb and Thomas Perry: mystery-thriller writers from different worlds

The Marshal and the Murderer by the late Magdalen Nabb is another foray into Florence and its nearby villages under the watchful eye of the ever-delightful and self-deprecating Marshall Guarnaccia. However, the events that transpire are not nearly as pleasant as the portly Marshall himself. In this episode, the murder of a foreign student leads Guarnaccia to a small town to assist the local authorities, or authority, as it turns out. There is the possibility of a turf war between the investigators, but after a few awkward moments along the way, they end up being a rather good-natured team. Food is a great common denominator for these Italian men, but it is their different backgrounds that end up providing crucial, complementary insights into the crime.

In fact, the mystery can't be solved at all without intimate knowledge of the closed-in, rather inbred village and its history, a history not readily yielded to outsiders. Guarnaccia contributes his usual insights, but remains somewhat mystified about how he actually helped the investigation.

The events that created a dangerous and volatile environment in the village date to before and during World War II. The terrible past meets the murderous present when the life of a young Swiss pottery student is taken violently. The village where the crime takes place is devoted largely to making clay pots and similar products, mostly for purely commercial rather than artistic reasons. There is at least one artist present, however, and he was the victim's teacher. Though quite elderly, he is as lecherous as he is brusque, and he falls under suspicion.

The villagers themselves make assumptions about the murder based on what happened in town 60 years earlier, during the war, and try their hand at vigilante justice. However, the Marshall and his new colleague are not convinced that the villagers understand who the real criminal is.

The story provides a view of how the war divided Italy, and how deeply those divisions might still run in some places. What is the protocol for interacting with the children of fascists and Nazi sympathizers in the aftermath of such a deadly war: must the parents' sins be carried on the shoulders of their children?

We see alliances and hatreds that formed in an isolated, working class village over its long history, a history written as much by the distance of modern highways as by the war itself. We experience first-hand accounts of the complex and terrible interactions between the Germans and Italians in latter stages of World War II.

Be sure to read this wonderfully-plotted mystery from the pen of a master- it is recommended to all.

The Butcher's Boy
I also recently read The Butcher's Boy by Thomas Perry. This is a good thriller, though forgive me if I find it hard to empathize with a mob hit man as protagonist. Yes, that goes for Lawrence Block's work, also: I much prefer Block's mysteries such as In the Midst of Death (from the Matthew Scudder series) to Hit Man (one of the John Keller Mysteries).

The new paperback edition of The Butcher's Boy has a laudatory introduction by one of my favorite authors, Michael Connelly (e.g. The Harry Bosch Novels: The Black Echo, The Black Ice, The Concrete Blonde), and seems to be a favorite of many readers and reviewers, but I'm a bit less enthusiastic in my support.

The Butcher's Boy
follows a female Department of Justice investigator who tries to tie a set of suspicious deaths together, and the man who has done the killing. While law enforcement is trying to sort through the seemingly disconnected crimes, or apparent accidents, the clever killer makes a mistake with his mob employers, and becomes their next target. The hit man doesn't take this well, to say the least, and his field of view becomes a dangerous place for all involved.

At the end of a hard month or so of hard and harrowing work, both the hit man and the insightful Justice Department analyst, Elizabeth Waring, earn much needed vacations...

While I found the first few Jane Whitfield novels by Perry (Dance for the Dead, Vanishing Act) to be more compelling than The Butcher's Boy, I do enjoy reading about women with good aim, excellent survival and crime solving skills, and good hearts. Ms. Waring is highly capable and well worth following, but she is no force of nature the way Jane Whitfield is. The Butcher's Boy offers more sardonic pleasure than flat-out exhilaration.

Thomas Perry has written a number of novels with unusual characters, and I recommend most of them to fans of crime fiction (the later Whitfield novels seemed to me to have lost their way). I reviewed the crime thriller Nightlife here: it is about another of Perry's strong female protagonists named Catherine Hobbes. Memory tells me that Nightlife has more hard-core violence and suspense than The Butcher's Boy, and it lacks the dark humor hidden in Ms. Waring's world; Nightlife receives the stronger recommendation from me, especially for readers who can enjoy its rougher edges, but both these books deserve your time.

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