On a recent trip to my favorite local bookshop, I loaded up with a basket-full of mystery novels. I’m not sure if it’s the Autumn weather, the hint of Winter chill just around the corner, but I’m suddenly in the mood for mysteries.
I decided to dive into my stack with Murder on Brittany Shores and Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions. Out of all the books these two appeared the coziest. Both novels take place in scenic settings – one in Brittany, the other on the Sicilian coast. Additionally both are English translations (always a tricky thing to review, because it’s hard to know whether I’m critiquing the original writing or the translator’s interpretation).
Murder on Brittany Shores by Jean-Luc Bannalec
I am usually very careful to start a series from book one, yet a chapter into this story I realized I’d accidentally started on book number two. Fortunately, I don’t think I missed too much by reading the books out of order, other than minor character background information.
This series follows Commissaire Georges Dupin as he solves crimes in Brittany’s beautiful Glénan Islands. At the start of this particular volume, three dead bodies are found on one of the remote beaches. The story then follows Commissaire Dupin over the span of three days as he digs up answers to the identities and cause of death of the three deceased.
Based on what I can glean from book two (without having read any of the other series installments), this is a fairly standard chief detective story, with all the stereotypes that come with the sub-genre. Commissaire Dupin is grumpy, seems to dislike at least half of his coworkers, and has trouble romantically due to the amount of time he dedicates to his job. In his career, he follows his instincts and is willing to deploy questionably legal means to uncover the truth. There is nothing extraordinarily new here; it’s your standard leading detective character-work.
Without reading the original French (which is outside of my capabilities), some of my review is supposition. I suspect that weak aspects of this novel were the fault of the translator. Grammar errors, as well as clunky and inelegant wording, pointed to a subpar translation. Fortunately, it seemed as though the original story was well-crafted. There were many plausible suspects, each with their own potential motives. There were a good number of clues, none of them too obvious; and plenty of red herrings to deter readers from an obvious path of deduction. At it’s core, this seemed a solid mystery inhibited by translation issues.
I liked that the novel was broken into three large sections: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3. None of the sections were broken into chapters, thereby setting an unrelenting pace. In what feels like real time, the reader follows Commissaire Dupin from the moment the bodies are discovered to the moment he solves the crime. Clearly, the author’s intent was to build the reader’s sense of tension with dogged pacing. This was sadly disrupted by overly verbose passages describing the story’s setting. It was difficult to know whether the lengthy descriptions of setting affected the pacing in the original French, or if this was again an issue of translation.
I don’t think the average reader will enjoy the English copy of this book. However, avid mystery fans might still enjoy it, since the core mystery elements are in tact.
Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions by Mario Giordano
This character-driven mystery made the translation to English with far better success. Perhaps the best way to introduce the series is to quote the first sentence of the first novel:
On her sixtieth birthday my Aunt Poldi moved to Sicily, intending to drink herself comfortably to death with a sea view.
Instead, Poldi stumbles into the middle of a murder investigation. When she finds the body of her hired handyman on the beach near her house, she calls the local police to investigate, and meets a handsome lead detective. Poldi’s lease on life is suddenly renewed by all the excitement, and she decides to vigorously launch herself into a little amateur sleuthing. She (temporarily) gives up drinking, enthusiastically encourages a romantic entanglement with the lead detective, and eventually solves the case (with a few humorous bungles along the way).
The story is narrated by Poldi’s nephew, who is attempting to write an expansive multi-generational novel, but instead finds himself accounting Poldi’s mystery solving antics. At first, it seemed unnecessary to wrap the story in the voice of her nephew recounting what Poldi could have narrated first-hand. Halfway through though, I started to appreciate the narrative device. It enhanced the offbeat, unconventional, tone of the book.
The core mystery of this book was not especially complex. I would not call it predictable, merely thought it landed on the lighter side of the mystery genre. The true charm of this book comes from the richly written characters, and the quirky humor. I adore strong female leads, and Poldi is tenacious, unabashed, and intelligent. I’m looking forward to reading about her further adventures in retirement.
This is an excellent read for mystery fans and readers who like a little quirk. Auntie Poldi is a hoot.