Saturday, March 03, 2018

Italian Mystery Series Debut from Mario Giordano, AUNTIE POLDI AND THE SICILIAN LIONS

What a great trend, to have European mysteries being translated at a newly rapid pace to bring fresh settings and attitudes to American readers! AUNTIE POLDI AND THE SILICILAN LIONS was written in German, even though Mario Giordano is the son of Italian immigrants to Germany. So its arrival in "the States" via Houghton Mifflin Harcourt meant translation by John Brownjohn (deftly!), with healthy dashes of Italian exclamations left in place. This confusion of heritage also means there's a lot of varied culture packed into the book, and the first few chapters are tough going -- Aunti Poldi, known formally to her new neighbors as Donna Poldina, is from Bavaria, a "free state" of Germany, and her formal name is Isolde Oberreiter. After some years of sorrow -- a challenging marriage, then widowhood and abrupt loss of funding, and some chaos in Africa that we never quite learn about -- Poldi has opted for a fresh start, near the sisters of her late husband, in Sicily. And with a view of the sea.

Adding to the mild confusion in the book's opening is the author's choice of double narrators: both Poldi herself in "third person," and her would-be writer nephew, to whom she is explaining what's taken place whenever he's back to visit her. After a while, I settled into the routine, and by about one-third through, I was totally in Poldi's pocket, eager to see how she would assess a crime scene and simultaneously open doors for her own passionate sense of life as crammed with love and erotic delight (or pierced by the lack of them!). How do the two narrations work? Here's a snippet, as Poldi's seaside walk leads her to the corpse of the missing hired helper Valentino she's been searching for:
When Poldi came nearer a cloud of flies rose from the remains of his head.
With a groan, she knelt down beside him. Just crouched beside the corpse, whimpering softly as if that age-old song of grief could bring him back to life. The big pebbles hurt her knees, but she scarcely felt the pain. She grasped his left hand, which was as cold and hard and dry as the stones on the beach.
"Oh, Valentino, why did you never say a word?"

She fondled his cold hand and stared at the sea and the rising sun, to avoid having to look at him. It wasn't her first dead body and she wasn't easily shocked, but the sight of the mangled face affected her deeply. She turned her head away and tried to concentrate on his hand, on his dirty fingernails and the familiar tattoo.

At length, however, she forced herself to look.

"That was when I made Valentino a promise," she told me later. "An almost automatic process was at work, that's why. It was genetically conditioned."

"You mean a kind of ... criminalistic hereditary reflex?" I asked, remembering the psychology course I'd dropped out of.

"Bullsh**. It was the hunting instinct." She looked at me. "Either you've got it or you haven't."
From here on, Auntie Poldi is hunting for the killer.  It won't be easy -- she's making friends in her new neighborhood, but she's still a ways from feeling accepted by Sicily, and her outbursts of Bavarian language (and insight) aren't always welcome. With a marvelous cast of characters, from the sexy (but unable to commit) police investigator, to the wealthy landowner obsessed with the German poet Hölderlin, to her new French friend Valérie, to her helpful and eager sisters-in-law, Poldi plunges into Sicilian entanglements. And crime solving -- she's determined to be the first to reveal the killer. (Uh-oh.)

Even during the slow first few chapters, something about Poldi and her nephew pulled me into this "amateur-sleuth" mystery -- and by the second half of the book, I was scooting away from other work on the flimsiest of excuses, just to catch up with Poldi's next charge forward. I liked the clever chapter openers, too, which hinted at what would emerge. And I found the ending delightful -- including its clear opening for more Auntie Poldi books ahead. (This interview with the author reveals that two more are already written.)

I already have three people in mind to whom I'd like to give a copy of this rollicking, passionate, and engaging mystery -- perhaps the best metric of how good a book is.  Looking forward to more. Forza, Aunti Poldi!

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

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