Auntie Poldi and the lost Madonna

Mario Giordano, 1963-

Book - 2021

"There's only one Auntie Poldi: bewigged, cursing in Bavarian, and knocking back a wee shot of grappa as a pre-breakfast aperitif . . . or is there? No one is as they seem (and sound) in this hilarious new mystery featuring Sicily's sultriest sleuth... Strange dealings are afoot in the Apostolic Palace--a nun leapt to her death shortly after participating in a seemingly routine exorcism. But when a priest clad in Gammarelli and a Vatican commissario with an almost unholy level of sex appeal turn up at her door, Poldi is shocked to hear that she's a suspect in their case. Who is the woman being exorcised, and where has she disappeared to? And why in the world does she claim, in perfect Bavarian, to be Poldi, Isolde Oberre...iter, of Torre Archirafi? Poldi will need all the help she can get to clear her name, but her nephew has been distracted by a love affair gone sour, someone in the town has been spraying graffiti death threats on her front door, and her local friends seem to be avoiding her. And even Vito Montana balks when Poldi discovers that the case hinges on a lost Madonna statue, stolen years ago from the pope himself. Forza, Poldi! With a pair of mysterious twins dogging her every move and a mandate to maintain sobriety, will Poldi be able to unmask her mysterious doppelgänger, find the lost statue in time, and survive her sixty-first birthday?"--

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Subjects
Genres
Mystery fiction
Detective and mystery fiction
Cozy mysteries
Published
Boston : Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2021.
Language
English
German
Main Author
Mario Giordano, 1963- (author)
Other Authors
John Brownjohn (translator)
Edition
First US edition
Item Description
Translated from the German.
"First published in Germany in 2019 as Tante Poldi und die Schwarze Madonna by Bastei Lübbe AG, Köln"--Title page verso.
Physical Description
vi, 339 pages ; 21 cm
ISBN
9780358446279
9780358251392
Contents unavailable.
Review by Booklist Review

Nephew (last seen in Auntie Poldi and the Handsome Antonio, 2020) is again summoned to Poldi's, where he finds a live-in sitar tutor and a newly hatched plan for Donna Poldina's Detective Agency. All told, it's not a bad idea: Poldi has solved three murders since she moved to Sicily a year ago. Business planning, however, is put on the back burner when Poldi is thrust into a dangerous Vatican mystery. A nun has died under suspicious circumstances after attending a bizarre exorcism where the possessed claimed to be Poldi. And, perhaps not coincidentally, the Vatican's treasured Black Madonna has suddenly disappeared. Pursued by a local mobster's thugs and dodging her imaginary friend, Death, Poldi pursues the nun's killer and the Madonna into a trap laid by her oldest nemesis. Poldi's devil-may-care attitude and Nephew's witty, self-deprecating narration are as entertaining as ever, but this series' fourth entry is anchored by Poldi's evolution as she faces both her future and her conflicted past.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

In Giordano's exceptional fourth Auntie Poldi mystery (after 2020's Auntie Poldi and the Handsome Antonio), 60-year-old Isolde "Poldi" Oberreiter, a Bavarian who has settled in Torre Archirafi, Sicily, sets aside her plan "to drink herself to death in comfort with a view of the sea" to investigate another crime--the death of a nun who fell from the roof of the Vatican's Apostolic Palace following the exorcism of a woman named Rosaria. When the priest asked Rosaria to renounce her demon, she spoke Bavarian German in Poldi's voice. While the plot, which involves the theft of a statue of a Black Madonna, is satisfyingly packed with danger and surprises, it's the digressions on Sicilian history, the Italian mentality, and Poldi's pronouncements on life and sex that provide readers with some laugh-out-loud moments as well as food for thought. Those who appreciate the intelligent silliness of S.J. Perelman will want to see more of the sexy, quick-witted Poldi, who won't take guff from any man, including the pope. (May)

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review

Poldi proves again that although killing herself may not be the best idea, seaside Sicily is a great place to not do it. Auntie Poldi's plan to drink herself to death in sight of the sea having been foiled multiple times by her involvement in a series of juicy murder investigations, her nameless nephew thinks it may be safe to go off to Paris to join Valérie, the object of his sometimes-requited affections. When he returns in a funk because his would-be beloved is now back with her photographer ex-boyfriend, he finds everything topsy-turvy in Poldi's home in the Via Baronessa. Vito Montana, the virile policeman who occupies Poldi's ever lustful thoughts, is nowhere to be found. Instead, a sitar player named Ravi wanders the hallways mixing cleansing smoothies, and Poldi herself seems caught on the great wheel of karma. A tape surfaces that shows an Italian woman with Poldi's voice cursing in Bavarian at the priests who are trying to exorcise her demons. Then a young nun who'd attended the exorcism falls from a roof in the Vatican. When she sneaks into the Vatican to figure out what's happening, she manages to knock over a group of cardinals and get herself arrested. Her best friends back home in Torre Archirafi abandon her. The search for a missing statue of the Black Madonna beckons, but an authority even more powerful than the pope puts sex, drink, and sleuthing out of her reach. Poldi rebels as only Poldi can, and the results spiral to epic and profound heights only a manic genius could have imagined. When a heroine so fearless spars with karma, who can doubt the result? Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

1 Tells of graffiti, start-ups, chakras, pirates, learning the sitar, uniforms, envy, and death. Sicilian summers bring out the abs and pecs, Poldi embarks on a spiritual journey, and her nephew is once more devoid of a plan. On the plus side, Poldi has taken in a new in-home helper with a cock-and-bull backstory. When Montana gets serious, she first develops cold feet and then receives some nocturnal visitors. Krazzz ab! This misspelled German injunction to kick the bucket had been sprayed on the front of No. 29 Via Baronessa, right beside my Auntie Poldi's pretentious brass plate. Glistening in the midday sun, the black paint did, one had to admit, contrast most dramatically with the sunny yellow of the façade. Black and yellow is, after all, Mother Nature's favorite color combination for venomous reptiles, killer wasps, and no-entry areas of all kinds. Visible from afar, it is an unmistakable warning that the fun stops here. Even the dimmest birdbrains get the message at once; either that or they're hoodwinked. The drips oozing down from the spidery capital letters, which had clearly been applied in a hurry, may have been meant to lend them a certain emphasis. They looked more like the product of a Halloween stencil from a hobby shop, but the message itself was disturbing nonetheless.      "What the hell!" I said, taking off my rucksack, which was sticking to my back.      "Quite," Poldi said happily. "My sentiments entirely."      I was just going to ask what it all meant when Totti, my Aunt Teresa's dog, came hurtling out of the house. Beside himself with delight, he leapt up at me, almost knocking me over, and licked me from head to foot. He also gave one of his habitual farts, needless to say, but my weary heart melted and I reciprocated my smelly friend's welcome by patting him and ruffling his fur.      "What's Totti doing here?"      "Well, Teresa thought it'd be better if I wasn't all alone in the house for a while."      Mind you, no animal could be less suited to the role of watchdog than Totti. A typical Sicilian mongrel, he's yellow with a black muzzle, huge, batlike ears, and a thoroughly ill-designed body that looks as if it's been put together out of components from every breed imaginable. I strongly doubt that his appalling farts would suffice to keep a potential murderer at bay.      "Is this the only threat you've received?"      "There were similar messages sprayed on walls in Via Filandieri--in English and Italian, presumably to demonstrate the troll's language skills. I made a record of them all, of course."      She got out her mobile phone and proudly showed me photos of various menacing messages. All it said on one wall was POLDI GO HOME!, which I found quite mild.      "That's how it started," Poldi explained. "The wording was rather ambiguous, though, because 'home' is a relative concept to a citizen of the world like me. Besides, my 'home' is here in Torre Archirafi, and because that probably occurred to the troll, he resorted to threats of murder--"      "He?" I broke in on impulse.      Poldi stared at me in surprise. "Well, I never! Bravo, cento punt i ! This time you didn't fall into the primary hypothesis trap. Could be a she."      She stepped back with her head on one side and contemplated the threat on her façade like an art expert.      That gave me a brief opportunity to inspect my Auntie Poldi, because we hadn't seen or spoken to each other for a few weeks--not until the previous day, when she had un­equivocally summoned me back to Sicily right away.      Although rivulets of sweat were trickling down her cheeks from under her black wig, I thought she was looking well. She had acquired a bit of a tan and was wearing hot pants made out of truncated jeans from which her bare thighs bulged in a rather unflattering way. With these she wore a skintight orange top with a plunging neckline that emphasized her Bavarian baroque appearance, and peeping saucily out of her décolleté was the tattooed phoenix on her left breast. Completing her outfit were a pair of strappy gold sandals and a whole collection of cowrie-shell necklaces that clicked and clattered softly whenever she moved. Only a woman as self-assured as my Auntie Poldi could have ventured such a hippie look at the age of nearly sixty-one.      What really took my breath away, however, was the screen-printed image on her top: a kind of silhouette of herself with the words DONNA POLDINA below it in bold capitals.      "Did you get that made?" I blurted out.      "No, your cousin Marco designed it. It's a logo. The thing is, I thought I'd open a discreet little detective agency--a sort of start-up, you know." Poldi tweaked the top straight and stretched to give me a good view of everything. "Like it? I've got one in your size too."      I sighed. "Yes, don't tell me. Moderation is a sign of weakness."      "You can stick your sarcasm where the sun don't shine. It's what they call image-building. Marco says you've got to pull out all the stops from the word go: home page, blogs, logo, merchandising--the whole shebang."      She turned back to the graffito.      Wafting toward me through the open front door came a gust of air-conditioned air mingled with the scent of patchouli and the soft, plaintive strains of a sitar. So Poldi was on a spiritual journey, and also champing at the bit with her new business idea. This could only mean that her plan to drink herself to death within sight of the sea had been temporarily shelved. On balance, this was a welcome development--or would have been but for the KRAZZZ AB! on her wall.      Poldi concluded her art expert's analysis and shook her head. "No, that was a guy all right. Three Z 's . . . It's suggestive of all the insecurity of a pubescent prick without a girlfriend, don't you think? The sort that's lost his grip on life--spends all day watching movies on the internet and gets a hard-on if he can spook someone. Want a beer?"      "Finally," I grunted. I picked up my rucksack and went inside.      Totti trailed after me, farting.      I was naturally itching to hear about the background to these threats and all that had happened to Poldi while I'd been gone--all that she had done, botched, and straightened out again. I had to admit that I had missed her, even her eternal bullying. And I was positively bursting with curiosity about her adventures and escapades in the past few weeks, and could tell that she herself was finding it hard not to come out with it all. I knew better than to ask--in the first place, you must never badger Poldi if you want something from her; second, the Italian bella figura principle precludes undue curiosity; and third, it was really hot and I could have used a beer after my journey and all the chaos in France. I felt like I could use much more than one beer, in fact, but I'm not too fond of losing control of myself, and besides, I always get a headache after the third.      The first thing that struck me inside the house was the heavy, sweetish scent of joss sticks, fighting a losing battle with Totti's farts. In other respects, No. 29 Via Baronessa made a neat and tidy impression. Specifically, there were no empty booze bottles to be seen.      But then there was the sitar music, which was live.      I was just going upstairs when I glanced down at Poldi's shady inner courtyard and saw a guy of about twenty sitting there, dreamily playing the sitar in a white salwar kameez, the combination of long shirt and baggy trousers traditionally worn in India and Pakistan. He gave me a friendly nod. Rather puzzled by this apparition, I nodded back. From below me, Poldi called, "No need to look so surprised. That's Ravi. He's giving me lessons."      Shaking my head, I trudged on up the stairs to Poldi's attic guest room, which I regarded as my room at this point. The freshly made bed, which seemed to have been waiting for me, was coated with a thin layer of Totti's fur. I flung my rucksack into the corner and sat down at the wobbly little desk beside the window, where I figured I would finally, after a longish break, resume work on my novel, a great Sicilian family epic spanning an entire century. I checked my mobile for messages (there weren't any), or rather checked to see if Valérie was online (yes, she was), gazed at the phone with mounting despair, then turned it off and promptly on again. I could hear Poldi clapping to the sitar downstairs, and I strove vainly to feel at home. Somehow, I was completely out of gear.      "What's keeping you, for God's sake?"      "Just coming!" I called back, lying.      Thirty-four years old, I was devoid of any qualifications, job, or plan. All I had was a fragment of a botched novel and--this was a novelty--a broken heart. I was a living, breathing zero, and nothing and no one seemed capable of remedying this situation.      I went out onto the roof terrace to smoke a cigarette and collect my thoughts. The midday sun was dazzling. The heat, which felt like a punch to the face, was burning off the remains of spring. It was still springtime, but there wasn't a breath of wind. Across the rooftops I could see the sea stretching away to the horizon, glittering and motionless. Behind me, Etna jutted into the midday haze, its peak already free from snow and a sluggish, irresolute plume of smoke issuing from the main crater. Air conditioners were humming the length of the Via Baronessa. The air smelled of tomato sauce and coffee. Sounds of hammering were coming from the esplanade, where workmen were busy putting up snack bars and sunbathing decks on the seafront's jagged volcanic rocks.      The Sicilian summer was bringing out the abs and pecs again. It would once more reduce all movement to the consistency of molasses while enervating people with the sirocco, plague the countryside with tiger mosquitoes and forest fires, and make people closet themselves behind their shutters even more suspiciously than usual. But summer belongs to Sicily like mountains to Switzerland. It's only during the long, hot months from May to October that the island is entirely at ease with itself, rediscovering its rhythm like a cat that has strayed and found its way home again. Summer would also bring mulberry granita, silken nights filled with promise and the scent of jasmine, and days bathed in the sand-colored light of which you can never get enough. The coffee would again taste as it does nowhere else--in fact everything would again taste like the very first time, for that is the Sicilian summer's hypnotic trick: everything feels pristine, over and over again.      I was surprised to see that Poldi had embellished the roof terrace with several flowerpots containing a variety of succulents, a palm tree, and a little lemon tree--there was now even a bistro table with two basket chairs and a sun umbrella. It all looked really nice. Noticing an ashtray on the little table, I was touched to realize that she'd done it all for me. Poldi was waiting for me in the inner courtyard. There was a bottle of Birra Moretti on the table, but she herself was drinking something that looked like a mixture of duckweed and mud from the pond in a horror film. Ravi, sitting cross-legged on an embroidered cushion, was still playing the sitar. I briefly introduced myself.      "My pleasure!" he said in English. He played on, using a species of wire plectrum on his right forefinger to evoke gently quivering overtones from the instrument's twenty strings.      My overwrought nerves quivered along with them.      Totti, lying in the shade beneath the table, blinked at me cursorily.      "You look kind of tired, my friend," said Ravi. "I shall play something cheerful for you."       Not good, I thought in alarm, not good at all.      But Ravi had already adopted a different rhythm and the sitar was buzzing out a florid, coquettish medley of fifths and thirds.      Totti emitted a sigh.      "Could you take a break, please?" I interjected.      I sounded a bit brusque, perhaps, not that Ravi seemed resentful. He stopped playing but beamed like the sun.      "No problem, my friend."      "Hey," said Poldi, "what's the matter? Aren't you feeling well?"      "No, I'm fine," I muttered, lighting a cigarette. "What on earth are you drinking?"      "It's a laxative ayurvedic smoothie. Totally organic."      "Looks that way. What's in it?"      "Don't ask."      "How does it taste?"      "Awful, but it's good for the anahata."      "What's that?"      "Why, the heart chakra, the seat of unconditional love and so on. Like to try some? You're looking a bit constipated, heartwise."      I ignored the offer.      "Is he living here?" I asked without looking at Ravi.      "Oy, oy!" Poldi exclaimed in amusement. "Could someone possibly be jealous?"      "What does Montana say about it?"      I should have known better. Red line. Poldi glared at me for a moment, then tore several strips off me. "You impudent young twat!" she thundered like a summer storm in the Alps. "You can get stuffed! Who do you think you are, taking that tone with me? This is still my house and my life, and I'm not accountable either to you or to Vito. It's nobody's business but my own if I screw every available male from Taormina to Siracusa. If you don't like that, you tobacco addict, you can pack up your things again and piss off. Is that clear?"      Silence reigned for a moment. Poldi continued to glare at me.      "I like the sound of the German language," Ravi exclaimed. "It's very lovely."      "I apologize," I mumbled meekly. I gave an embarrassed cough and stubbed out my cigarette. "I'm sorry, Poldi, especially now. I'm, er . . . I'm going through a rough patch."      "Yes, I thought as much from the way you're looking, back in your nerdy old jeans and navy-blue polo neck. You make an emotionally dehydrated impression. Having trouble with Valérie? Or is it your pesciolino? Can't you get it up?"      I took a white paper napkin from the table and waved it in the air. "Poldi, please!" I sighed. "I already apologized." I turned to Ravi and said, "Sorry."      "You're welcome." Ravi folded his hands on his chest and bowed. "Namaste."      Totti farted.       There it is again, I thought, Poldi's parallel universe. As I did so, some of the previous weeks' heartache dissipated. Drawing a deep breath, I felt something akin to a cool sea breeze blow through me--I felt there again at last. In a nutshell, at home.      A trifle more reconciled with the world, I changed the subject. "Tell me something, Poldi. Why did you call me back from France? And no hedging, please. Just be straight with me, okay?"      She stared at me in surprise. "I didn't call you. I thought you missed me, that's all."      "Er . . . Just a moment! You called me. You told me to shift myself and get my arse back to Torre in double-quick time. I know your voice, after all."      Poldi suddenly looked kind of tense.      "Fake news," she said, studiously casual. "It wasn't me, I don't talk like that."      "You don't? Since when?! Who else was it, then?" A thought struck me. "You haven't had another of your mental blackouts, have you?"      Poldi angrily dismissed this. "Get on with you!"      "What's your explanation, then?"      She drew a deep breath. "There are things for which there's no so-called rational explanation. Want another beer?"      That's her usual way of evading an unwelcome subject. There was nothing to be done, I knew. She exchanged a glance with Ravi, who seemed suddenly in a hurry and took his leave. Poldi escorted him to the door and returned with another beer for me.      "Ravi is my new helper," she explained before I could say anything.      "Aha."      "Yes, not what you were thinking, okay? Housekeeper, not toyboy. Besides, it turns out that sitar music has a favorable effect on Totti. It stops him farting."      As though in confirmation of this, Totti let rip from under the table and I instinctively held my breath. Poldi put on a playlist of classical sitar music, and sure enough, his vile flatulence ceased.      "These death threats, Poldi--when did you say they started?"      "Soon after you dashed off to France like the biggest lovesick idiot in history."      I let that pass.      "And since when has Ravi been here?"      "Don't go down that road!" Poldi made a dismissive gesture. "Ravi's a kindhearted soul. He's an absolute pearl."      "Maybe someone in the town has a thing about Indians. Or foreigners in general."      "You reckon so?" she said.      I shrugged.      "Ravi comes from a highly respectable family," she said. "Three weeks ago he was going from door to door, offering his services as a cleaner, and I could have used a bit of help in the house after you and Valérie . . . Well, never mind. Any­way, Ravi told me he had majored in economics at Harvard and gone to Europe on a voyage of self-discovery. He was completely broke because--get a load of this--his father is a Mumbai multimillionaire who wants him to take over his entire hotel chain someday. But Ravi, who's got a lot of talent, would sooner play the sitar. That's why his father has brutally disinherited him and blocked all his credit cards. Sad, isn't it?"      I was dumbfounded. "And you bought that cock-and-bull story?"      "Good God, how dumb d'you think I am? Still, it's a good story, and a good story bends the truth a little, here and there, until a truth of its own emerges. Bear that in mind for your novel. No need to roll your eyes like that, just tell me what happened in France. Did you break up?"      Instead of replying, I pointed to her ayurvedic pond potion. "Heart chakra, did you say?" Before she could say anything, I swapped my cool Moretti for her slimy anahata smoothie. "I think they'd be more appropriate that way around--for both of us."      Poldi sighed. "It never ends, does it, the old heart palaver?" She clinked her bottle against my glass.      The smoothie was lukewarm and tasted like what I'd imagine a turtle's stomach contents might.      "Any alcohol in it?" I asked.      "Sure there is, I enhanced the flavor with a wee shot of grappa. It's all vegan."      "Bottoms up!" I downed the enhanced turtle cocktail in one, shook myself like a wet dog, and slammed the glass down on the table.      The "wee shot" of grappa was already going to my head.      "And now," I exclaimed, "I want to hear what's really been going on here. The whole story, mind you, so don't leave any­thing out. Oh yes, and I also want to know what sort of birthday party you'd like."      Because--who would have thought it after all that had happened?--Poldi would be celebrating her sixty-first birthday in a few weeks' time. It was almost a year ago, on her sixtieth birthday, that my Auntie Poldi had moved from Munich to sleepy little Torre Archirafi in Sicily, where she planned to drink herself to death in comfort with a view of the sea. However, a few things had supervened since then. Specifically, three murder cases that Poldi, sporting dramatic outfits and seldom entirely sober but fully committed, had solved. What had also supervened was a handsome commissario of police (to quote Poldi, a sexual force of nature) to whose pulsating, unflagging sicilianità she regularly succumbed. She had also acquired several new friends, for instance sad Signora Cocuzza from the café bar in the piazza. Or Padre Paolo, Torre Archirafi's chain-smoking priest. Or Valérie, the owner of Femminamorta, but I'd prefer to pass over her here for emotional reasons. Or Poldi's peculiar, cheesy-smelling, clipboard-carrying, imaginary friend in a hoodie--the one whose surprise visits she likes to describe but whose existence none of us is wholly convinced of.      By "us" I mean my family in Catania, notably my Aunts Teresa, Caterina, and Luisa and my Uncle Martino. They were the ones who had periodically flown their nephew--the dropout with the lousy command of Italian--from Germany to Sicily to look after Poldi and keep destroying her stocks of booze. A thoroughly Sisyphean task, I can tell you.      With a small inheritance and the remains of her savings, Poldi had purchased the little Via Baronessa house with the roof terrace that affords a view of Etna and the sea. I usually sit up there by myself because of Poldi's bad knee.      I enjoy being on my own, but Poldi needs people around her. She needs to make a big entrance, needs a stage on which to argue, flirt, grumble, blaspheme, be helpful, forge plans, and flaunt her leopardskin look. And, after solving three murders, she had found the perfect stage in peaceful little Torre Archirafi, with its esplanade and mineral-water spring.      She had soared to the heights of local celebrity like a comet. "Donna Poldina" was now well known throughout the Catania-Taormina area. For all her natural modesty, this went down well with Poldi and may possibly have gone to her head a little. Seldom did a day go by but someone rang her doorbell to ask her advice, request an autograph or a selfie, nail an unfaithful husband or the author of a poison pen letter, christen a fishing boat, mediate in a family feud, or find a pubescent Angelica who had run off with some acne-ridden Enzo. But these, of course, were all small fry to a sleuth of my Auntie Poldi's caliber. She was made to solve really major crimes, so she needed harder nuts to crack. It would have been like using a high-performance laser cutter for fretsaw work, except that a high-performance laser cutter doesn't drink itself to death when it's disconnected from time to time.      The other aunts were afraid that too much inactivity would sooner or later get Poldi down and drive her to drink, which was why they had set my cousin Marco on her during my absence. Hence the idea of the detective agency, the business plan, the logo, the T-shirts, and so on--all intended to keep Poldi on the go and off the booze. Perhaps the aunts and Marco had rather overdone it, though, because success, initiative, and self-assurance inevitably attract envious trolls who spit in your soup, key your car, leave dead cats on your doorstep, or--just for fun--threaten to murder you. For, sad to say, envy is as much a part of Sicily as Etna, the Cyclopses, Cosa Nostra, pasta alla Norma, suspicion, melancholy, and fatalism. It doesn't matter whether you start a business or build a house, open a bar or stand for election--as soon as you venture out of the safe haven of universal indifference, envy strikes, blighting your mood, testing your endurance, and setting traps that eventually spell disaster. Sicilian envy is a legacy from centuries of foreign occupation. It has saturated the Sicilians like omertà, the law of silence, preserving the status quo and ensuring that the ruling structure of money, power, and misery isn't displaced. Like bella figura, the look-good principle, it forms part of the glue that holds Sicilian society together. Envy tends to mean that you've made it to the next rung on the social ladder and want to stay there, thanks very much.      "Why so indignant?" Poldi demanded. We were still sitting in the courtyard. "Have I put your nose out of joint again?"      "No, it's all good."      "Oh, I get it. It was just that I thought you were too busy with Valérie and voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir. "      After Poldi had cleared up the Owenya case in such a spectacular fashion and John Owenya had returned to Tanzania, Poldi went off to Rome with Montana for a week of canoodling. Me, I flew back to France to join Valérie and heard nothing more from Poldi. Nix, niente, zilch.      I sighed. "Have you forgotten already, Poldi? I thought we were a team now."      "You didn't get in touch either."      "Eh? I sent you at least three texts a day."      "Poof! You know I hardly ever check my mailbox because of the negative vibes those electronic gizmos give off. I'd have answered if you'd sent me a letter."      "I did write you a letter."      "A proper letter. Fancy!"      "Yes, six pages of my best handwriting, plus an amusing little sketch. What more did you want?"      "I was very busy too, for God's sake!"      "With sitar-playing and 'it,' eh?"      Poldi shook her head reprovingly and drank some beer.      "No, with a new murder case," she said casually. "What did you think?"      I stared at her. "Are you being serious?"      "Yes. You don't think these graffiti write themselves, do you?" She leaned forward and whispered, "I'll just say this: Black Madonna!" After a brief, dramatic pause, she went on. "Somehow or other, I've got mixed up in another fine mess. Want to hear about it, or would you rather go on sulking?"      " Forza, Poldi!" I said with a sigh, and went to fetch myself another beer.      The fridge was full of little bottles of Moretti, no hard stuff. Since Poldi had been activating her ayurvedic chakras, I concluded that she'd always expected me back, and I inferred from the number of bottles that she intended to tell me everything in minute detail. I found this both galvanizing and flattering, I must admit, because my Auntie Poldi knows a thing or two about murder and thirst. But first things first, perhaps.      After John Owenya returned to Tanzania, Vito Montana, Poldi's bearded, mustachioed police inspector with the crumpled suits, frown lines between the eyes, dense thicket of chest hair, compact little tummy, and Cyclopean virility, had invited her on a surprise jaunt to Rome, where he had served in the special Antimafia Commission during the eighties and where his daughter, Marta, was studying medicine.      To Poldi, this was an unmistakable sign that the man was getting serious. And as usual when a man was getting serious--when she'd achieved her aim of being introduced to his family and included in medium-term plans for vacations and Christmas--she developed cold feet. It was no use, the lights went red and she panicked a bit. It had been the same even with my Uncle Peppe, the love of her life. Poldi simply couldn't resist the impulse to flee. My Uncle Peppe had managed to capture and even marry her, however, for--don't get me wrong--Poldi was a staunch believer in love, loyalty, and devotion. Although she could be flighty and had a thing for stalwart, uniformed traffic cops, she preferred a safe harbor to the open sea--but only if she could head for the harbor mouth whenever she thought fit. In her heart of hearts Poldi was a pirate, and pirates must sometimes go marauding so as to expand their horizons and make the world a bigger place for us all. I know of no one better equipped to do that than my Auntie Poldi.      Now that I know her somewhat better than I used to, I often wonder how Poldi and Peppe stayed together for so many years, because Peppe was a hothead, a bit of a rogue with an erratic lifestyle characterized by too little sleep and an excessive zest for life. Poldi always prevaricates when I broach the subject, and I can't ask my Uncle Peppe because he's dead. I sometimes think it must really have been a grand passion. Or sex, maybe. Or a shared love of booze. Or fate. Or my Uncle Peppe simply knew he had to give Poldi room to breathe.      Whether Montana would realize that remained to be seen. "On one condition only, tesoro, " Poldi said gently when Montana suggested the trip three weeks ago.      "I'm listening."      "Once we get to Rome, don't go fishing out a ring or proposing or anything of that kind, is that understood?"      "No worries," purred Montana. This not only relieved Poldi but almost immediately rankled a little.      She's like that, though, because she also knows a thing or two about the zest for life and the fragility of the human heart.      The trouble with the little trip to Rome was getting there, because Montana insisted on flying them himself in a friend's single-engine plane, and Poldi was terrified of flying. Montana dug his heels in, however. He needed another couple of hours' flying in order to extend his pilot's license in any case, and besides, I think he wanted to make a statement.      "Forget it, tesoro !" Poldi told him emphatically. "I don't need a vacation, let alone a lesson in humility."      "It's not about that," Montana replied gravely.      "So what is it about?"      "Trust."      "Are you being serious? After all we've been through?"      Montana just shrugged.      Poldi bombarded him with imprecations in Italian and Bavarian. She told him to go to the devil, she blocked his texts for three days and cursed, swore, and haggled like an Uzbek carpet seller. She pulled out all the stops, but in vain.      The evening before the planned trip to Rome, someone rang Poldi's front doorbell. Assuming that Montana had been worn down at last and was prepared to travel there in comfort by car and ferry, Poldi breezed to the door, ready to graciously forgive and engage in uninhibited, conciliatory sex.      But instead of a contrite commissario, she found two strange men standing there in the light of the streetlamp: a young priest in a soutane and a forty-something policeman in a blue uniform and a peaked cap which Poldi, for all her expertise in this field, could not immediately identify. The priest looked pale and exhausted. A thin film of sweat glistened on his forehead, and the bluish stubble on his chin intensified his thoroughly unhealthy appearance. He was incessantly kneading his very hirsute hands as though rubbing something off. Dust, perhaps, or--given that he was a Catholic--original sin. Anyway, Poldi thought he made a sickly impression. Not so the policeman, who looked great--just her type: muscular but not too tall, with a chiseled, clean-shaven, Hollywood-cop type of face. "A face like a bronze sculpture," she enthused to me. "Pure testosterone, believe me--in fact the sight of him took my breath away for a moment. He remained absolutely impassive, of course. If policemen smile at all, you know, it's only off-duty or after sex."      "Poldi, please!" I sighed.      Now, even Poldi knew that strange men who ring your doorbell at night aren't to be invited in just like that, even if they are wearing a police uniform or a cassock. Criminals come in many guises, after all. On the other hand, she was used to receiving strange visits at unusual times of the day or night. Besides, where knowledge of human nature and intuition were concerned, Poldi had one gear more than us normal individuals. The Oberreiterish superbrain took only nanoseconds to absorb the whole appearance of the pallid priest with his film of sweat, his fluttering eyelashes, his kneading fingers. It scanned his figure for lethal weapons, registered the high quality of his cassock and luxury footwear, and came to the conclusion that this young man genuinely was a priest.      "Moreover," Poldi told me, "a priest who could afford to have his clerical garb made for him by Gammarelli of the Via di Santa Chiara in Rome. They are the clerical tailors in Rome. Only popes and cardinals shop there--remember that in case you ever change track."      "How would you know something like that?"      "Why, because I used to be a costume designer and had to deal with such people. Anyway, he didn't look the sort who would hit an old lady over the head and steal her cheap jewelry. Only killers do that, and he just wasn't cool enough."      And Poldi had registered all this within moments, as I said.      Where the policeman was concerned she had no misgivings at all, because she simply had a nose for cops of all kinds. It was only his insignia that gave her pause for thought. She conducted a seconds-long mental review of her five photo albums containing all the policemen she had photographed (and sometimes screwed) in the previous thirty years. It wasn't until she noticed the badge on his left sleeve--a triple crown and crossed keys--that the penny dropped. "Well, I'll be buggered!"      "Signora Oberreiter?" rasped the policeman.      "Please forgive us for disturbing you at this hour," the priest said in a low voice. "I am Padre Stefano. This is Commissario Morello of the Vatican gendarmerie. We've come here straight from Rome."      "Really?"      "May we come inside?" growled the commissario.      Poldi then had a rather X-rated impulse, because detective inspectors are, as everyone knows, supreme manifestations of humanity, above all sexually, but she just managed to control herself.      "What's it about?"      "We'd like to ask you a few questions, that's all," said the Vatican commissario.      And, as ever when a policeman spoke of "a few questions" in that tone of voice, Poldi knew she was in trouble again. Excerpted from Auntie Poldi and the Lost Madonna: A Novel by Mario Giordano All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.