Excerpts from the book

Click here to read further excerpts adapted online by The Guardian
Villa delle Terme 61
When she arrived in the city, Jemima Elliott felt very lost. Fortunately, the first thing she saw in her new flat was a map on the dining table. Unfortunately, it was labeled in Cyrillic. But what better opportunity, thought she, to learn a new skill while discovering the city?

Even more unfortunately, Jemima was unable to decipher that it was actually a map of Bratislava. The circle in ballpoint, which she supposed marked the position of the flat, was in fact a rendezvous point for a clandestine exchange of packages.

As she explored her new neighbourhood, Jemima began to make connections between the strange lettering on the map and the Italian street names. Over a period of six weeks, she got herself hopelessly lost an average of three times a day - but she was not, she would always readily admit, very good with maps.

Slowly, however, she succeeded in superimposing Florentine buildings, streets, bridges, and landmarks onto the plan of the Slovak city. The Danube River became the Arno. St Martin's Cathedral was converted, on paper at least,into the Duomo. Very occasionally she would make small corrections, surprised at how dramatically construction must have overtaken cartography.

By the time she had been in Florence two months, the reality of one city had been perfectly placed on top of the other. She had also deciphered, erroneously, the entire Cyrillic alphabet.

One day, twelve weeks after her arrival, Jemima was a ten-minute walk from her flat when she realised she had forgotten her exotic map. She was about to turn and walk back home when she remembered that, the previous day and without a word of explanation, a strange man had shuffled up to her and given her a two-euro coin.

Jemima decided to go to a nearby kiosk and spend the money on a new map of Florence. She became so distressed by her new purchase that it took three and a half hours to find her way back to the flat.

Borgo san Frediano 1
"That's it," thought Emilio. "I'm going to be a detective." He was eight years old and had just read the entire series of Philip Marlowe books in a weekend. That afternoon, he cut holes in his father's newspaper and stared through them at passersby. He then practised leaving dead-letter drops under park benches for others to find, and every Saturday afternoon, he would quietly follow people he'd never met, noting down their movements in his notepad.

The older Emilio got, the more of an obsession it became. He left school at eighteen to turn pro. He hired a small room, put "L'Investigativa" on the doorbell, placed an ad in the local newspaper ("Experienced private detective. No case too big. No case too small, either. Call Emilio. All cases accepted.") and waited for the work to come in.

The problem was that, since the age of eight, it wasn't just his ambition that had been growing. By the time he turned seventeen, Emilio had flat feet, a dandelion of bright red hair, and was six feet, five inches tall. In short, he was probably the clumsiest and most conspicuous private detective there has ever been. He also wasn't very good at it.

He had failed to discover if Signora Castifiore's husband was cheating on her and couldn't spot the waiters who pick-pocketed at Signor Mostelli's restaurant. The would-be arsonist had left the scene long before Emilio had clomped his way down the street and peered in the shop window, while the Bagrone family's teenage daughter had spotted him straightaway and managed to give him the slip as soon as she had turned the first corner after school.

Within a month, the phone had stopped ringing. Emilio became thoroughly depressed. A kindly uncle felt sorry for his nephew and gave Emilio a job that he had already privately discarded as impossible - to find proof that one of his debtors, who claimed poverty, had a hidden private income.

Three of Florence's biggest debt-collection agencies had failed him. The uncle had written off the large sum and didn't begrudge adding a smaller sum to it if it would make his nephew feel better about things.

Emilio happily wrapped himself up in the task. He resolved not to return home until he had found the evidence he needed. The next morning he began, following the debtor everywhere he went, hiding behind corners, quietly noting his movements, watching carefully from a distance whenever he entered offices, shops, cafeterias, or bars. He did the whole thing by the book.

Which is why, two days later, a rush of blood sprang into Emilio's cheeks when the target turned around and began to approach him. He quickly changed direction, walked away, was about to cross the street when the man grabbed him by the arm. He seemed upset. "Will you please stop following me?" asked the target. "Look, I know you're there, I can guess who you're working for, and you're starting to freak me out."

Emilio stared at the ground and didn't reply. But he didn't give up either. He continued to sit in his car within sight of the man's house and slept there uncomfortably every night. Every time the target entered a building, Emilio would loiter in dark unseen corners in the vestibule, quietly rereading his Philip Marlowe books from front to back. He kept his distance, watching the entrances of offices, shops, cafeterias, bars.

The days passed slowly, but Emilio didn't mind. In truth, he wasn't sure what evidence he would find, as, unlike his hero, he was far too timid to attempt any investigation that might involve illegal entry or rifling through dustbins. As long as he was still on the case, that was surely enough. Patience, he felt, would eventually bring its rewards.

A week later, his uncle came to find him. The target was leaving a roadside cafeteria, while Emilio leaned on a wall across the street. He folded away his newspaper and was about to follow the man when his uncle came up behind him suddenly and grabbed his arm. The target was walking away at some speed. Emilio tried to shake off his employer, moving to follow the target.

"You don't understand. You don't have to do this anymore," said the uncle. "No, you don't understand," replied Emilio. "I'm not going to mess this one up. I'm here until I find something." He started to leave, his eyes firmly on the small figure disappearing into the city crowds.

His uncle pulled him back. "No. You don't understand. You don't have to do this anymore because he paid up in full. In the bank, this morning. I have the money. He said that you're starting to scare him, and that people have begun to talk. They are laughing at how you are always there, wherever he goes. They'd even started to call you his boyfriend. He paid in cash with interest, too and made me promise that you'll never follow him again. That's a remarkable talent you have, Emilio. Congratulations. You cracked the case."

He'd remember that moment for the rest of his life. Those four words. Those magical four words.

Instantly, he realised what he would have to do. Instead of trying to be subtle, he would stand out. Instead of hiding in dark corners, he would place himself in broad daylight. Away with the dark suits and the raincoat. That afternoon, he spent half of his uncle's reward money in a costume shop. He tried on clown suits and bear costumes. He experimented with a nun's habit and the sharp silver edges of a robot. He felt them all a little too frivolous for the task, and settled instead on a long dark tailcoat and an unusually tall top hat. He became, from that day on, the Undertaker of Debt.

Now Emilio has five employees in the city, all unusually tall or short, clumsy but persistent, and with unforgettable faces. Their clients are always creditors, people frustrated with a slow, unfathomable, and occasionally corrupt Italian legal system, and who remain squeamish of hired thugs. Instead, they send in the Undertakers. Everyone in Florence now knows them and what they represent - a smart hat and tails marching down the street, faces powdered white with dark false shadows under their eyes, a large euro sign sewn onto the back of their coat. People point and laugh at the outfits and then look two meters ahead to see who the scarlet-faced debtor is, usually hurrying with head lowered, trying to lose their constant stalkers.

From work to restaurant, cinema to country picnic, the tail-coated shame follows these people everywhere, its strange shadow cast across their lives until they eventually pay up.

Emilio's company is about to open new offices in Rome and Milan. The work is so regular that he has trouble finding enough conspicuous people to take it all on. Best of all, his new company's success rate is 100 percent. Not even Philip Marlowe could boast that.

Buy The Doorbells of Florence here