Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, November 20, 2017

Monday, November 20, 2017: Maximum Shelf: Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions

Houghton Mifflin: Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions by Mario Giordano

Houghton Mifflin: Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions by Mario Giordano

Houghton Mifflin: Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions by Mario Giordano

Houghton Mifflin: Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions by Mario Giordano

Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions

by Mario Giordano, trans. by John Brownjohn

Mario Giordano's first novel to be translated into English, Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions, is a charming-with-a-bite mystery starring Isolde Poldina Oberreiter, aka Auntie Poldi, a sensual woman of a certain age. Usually in mysteries, older women are clever, wise or crotchety, rarely lusty. Poldi is all that, and more. Although booze and depression have taken their toll, she is still glamorous and stylish, and never without her black wig.

On her 60th birthday, Auntie Poldi moved from Munich to Sicily, "intending to drink herself comfortably to death with a sea view... [but] Sicily is complicated--you can't simply die there; something always gets in the way." She wanted to be near family: three sisters-in-law--Teresa, Caterina and Luisa--and Uncle Martino, Teresa's husband. She finds a house in Torre Archirafi, a sleepy little town between Catania and Taormina, with the sea below and Etna behind. It's crowded on summer weekends with Catanians "dazed by a miasma of coconut oil, frying fat and fatalism," but Poldi settled in at No. 29 Via Baronessa, where her days begin with a revivifying Prosecco, followed by an espresso with brandy, followed by brandy, then by her first beer; later in the day, gin and tonic. She was well on her way to dying--until she hired a young, handsome handyman, Valentino.

Soon after he began working for her, he vanished. Auntie Poldi decides to find him after not hearing from him for a few days, and becomes suspicious when she can't get any information from the village or his parents. Although she is still determined to go down the slow suicide road, she wants answers. After all, her father had been a homicide detective in Augsburg, so Poldi was preprogrammed for suspicion and the hunting instinct.

Once a month, her somewhat hapless nephew from Germany comes to stay in Poldi's attic while working on an epic family saga. In the evenings, if she is tipsy enough (a given), he hears about her investigations into Valentino's disappearance, and narrates the story with various comments and asides.

Auntie Poldi finds Valentino's body at the local beach, his head blown away. After calling the police, she meets Vito Montana, a detective chief inspector with a face like a Greek god. Poldi chats him up, offering her take on the evidence (no saltwater marks on his clothing). Smitten with the sexy detective, she tells her nephew she "had to lay a little scent mark, and nothing is more appealing to a detective than a mixture of half-truths and subtle eroticism."

She begins to unravel the mystery when she finds out about the commonplace theft of tiles, mosaics and sculptures from old palaces and country mansions--they are sold to people who want to outfit their expensive new houses. Poldi finds inspiration and clues on a mushroom-hunting expedition, in her photos of Taormina, with a missing stone lion that ends up on her roof. They sometimes lead her down the wrong path, but she perseveres. Poldi is also energized by her need to be one step ahead of Montana and, after she discovers another woman in his life, to make him look like a fool. "The ice cubes tinkled their serenade of coolness and refreshment, the scent of juniper hummed its promise of farewell and oblivion, the tonic promised tears and bitterness, the sun went down behind Etna, and the sea was as heart-rendingly blue as Poldi planned to be before long." However, she isn't blue for long, and sets a trap for Valentino's murderer; of course, things don't go as planned.

Auntie Poldi is enchanting and formidable. Melancholy often overtakes her, but she has a restlessness that has dominated her family for centuries, "arising whenever the wind changed--whenever the world went awry and called for adjustment and correction." In spite of her melancholy and depression, and desire to drink herself into oblivion, Poldi knows a thing or two about "starting afresh, picking yourself up, laughing at yourself and standing for no nonsense." And, when the chips are down, showing plenty of cleavage.

In addition to creating a delightful character, Mario Giordano treats the reader to a primer on Sicily. "For Sicilians, joie de vivre rests on two pillars: good food and talking/arguing about good food.... Life is complicated on an island imprisoned in a stranglehold of crisis and corruption, where men still live with their parents until marriage or their mid-forties for lack of employment, but no culinary compromises are ever made." Sicilian cuisine is "all-embracing and pleasurably involves all the senses in a single dish. [The pistachio ice cream was] salty as sea air, the chocolate ice cream faintly bitter and a little tart like a lover's goodbye the next morning."

Giodano has a knack for description--a Frenchwoman, Valerie, is "every chain-smoking French film director's dream"--and for fancy. Death visits Auntie Poldi with a clipboard and a to-do list, but tells her that, against her wishes, he hasn't come for her yet. Inspector Chance, who's always needed at some stage in crime solving, does minimal work, is a capricious slob, but he can shine a light on hidden mysteries. In this case, Inspector Chance brings together Poldi, a photograph and Ringo Starr.

Giordano's prose is witty and lush, and sometimes overblown to match Poldi: "the argosy of their passion finally departed under full sail." Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions is absolutely enchanting, combining whimsy, mystery, sorrow and Sicilian hot blood, with a lusty, tart heroine who "[knows] a thing or two about good places, friendship and things that sustain us." --Marilyn Dahl

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24, hardcover, 352p., 9781328863577, March 6, 2018

Houghton Mifflin: Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions by Mario Giordano

Mario Giordano: Life into Art

photo: Rica Rosa

Mario Giordano, the son of Italian immigrants, was born in Munich. He is the author of 1,000 Feelings for Which There Are No Names; he has also written thrillers, books for children and screenplays. Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions is his first novel translated into English. He lives in Cologne.

Is there a real Auntie Poldi?

Yes. I had this Bavarian aunt and she moved to Sicily in order to drink herself to death, which she managed to do. She never expressed it openly, but it was quite obvious that she had that plan. She was a very funny and glamorous and dramatic woman. We all loved her. But she was very melancholy, too, so there was a blueprint, so to say.

Did she inspire you to write a mystery?

Well, it was a little bit like the nephew in Auntie Poldi attempting to write this big, big family saga. For many years I had the same idea. Three generations--Sicily, Germany, immigration, history, whatever. I never came to grips [with my problem with it] until I realized why. The reasons were quite simple: I didn't have a real story, no protagonist, no narrative perspective. So I thought, let's try with a genre I am familiar with, which is mystery and crime fiction. Then I had this idea to make it funny. Then I remembered my Aunt Poldi. At that moment, everything fell together. I immediately knew I would write a funny mystery with Auntie Poldi as a protagonist and myself as a clumsy, nerdy narrator. And that's it.

Do you have aunts like the characters Teresa, Caterina, Luisa? An Uncle Martino?

Of course. I had to ask them very seriously before I was writing the first book, because immediately they said, okay, no worries, you can write about us. I said no no no no no... take your time, sleep on it, and then give me an answer, because I don't want you to complain when the novel is done. So they said, okay, Mario, you can write about us, just change the names and we are fine. They really liked it, and since they grew up in Germany they can read the German editions.

"Sicilians find it a cinch to emigrate to Germany for decades: bag packed, bacio, addio--and off they go." Why Germany?

Well, it's not only Germany, of course. Sicilians have always emigrated to Austria, to Switzerland, to wherever in Europe, and even of course to the U.S. But Germany has always been a major destination because, as Machiavelli said, the neighbor of your neighbor is your friend. Italians do have a very romantic relationship with Germany, and vice versa. And it's not that far away. It was always possible to go back to Sicily on summer vacations. I am German, and this is the story of my family--they immigrated here in the early 20th century, and then went back in the 1960s.

Do you work with your translators?

In this case, no. I was in touch with the translator [John Brownjohn] later; sometimes he had questions, so we had a little e-mail exchange. I usually don't have much contact with a translator. It was a bit different with the Italian translation, because I commissioned the translation to make it a present to the non-German-speaking part of my family. Then an Italian publishing house bought this translation, and since my Italian translator was living in Berlin, we were in touch all the time. It's interesting to see how they struggle and which solutions they come up with.

One of the things I like about the English version is that the translator left in not just the usual familiar Italian words and phrases, but more, like forza, bella figura, che schifo.

I think that translators should have enough freedom to decide on their own how they work. It's never a good idea for me, as a writer, to recommend some stuff; if it's a good translator, they always have a feeling for what is best. I really like the idea that the translator left a few Italian words and phrases here and there. Even in the German original there are some Italian expressions which add atmosphere to the whole.

Will there be another Auntie Poldi book?

Yes. The second in the series is Auntie Poldi and the Vineyards of Etna [March 2019]. I just finished the third volume this summer, Auntie Poldi and the Handsome Antonio [March 2020]. Last week I decided to immediately finish a screenplay, and then I will start working on the fourth Poldi. I originally had the plan to write a very different novel in between, just for a change, but it was so much fun I really wanted to write another one. I always have said that I have enough material and ideas for six, but I think six would be enough. I never wanted to write a series for the rest of my life.

You have to know when to stop.

That's clear, because in a series at some point you have narrated all about the mystery of the character, and then everyone knows everything about the character. Then the series is done. There is no engine for continuation. As long as I can give the character a little secret and interesting parts to discover, then I'm fine.

Will you keep teasing us with what's under Poldi's infamous wig?

In the third volume, the nephew will get a little glimpse of what is probably under the wig. But he's not sure. And he wouldn't ever talk about it.

Good! I don't want to know.

Exactly. It's a ridiculous secret, but I really like it. --Marilyn Dahl

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