by Sharon Tucker
Life has a habit of living you if you don’t live it.
Spending time in Provence was a favorite part of the European vacation I took a few years ago. This beautiful southernmost portion of France has had so much written about it and has been the setting of so many films, many of us feel like we have not only toured Provence, but even lived there. I know I felt like a long time resident after reading and seeing Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence and certainly so after reading all five of M. L. Longworth’s Verlaque and Bonnet mysteries.
While A Year in Provence is the story of an English couple who relocate to Provence and isn’t really a mystery, Verlaque and Bonnet are a very French couple indeed, live in the Provencal city of Aix-en-Provence and solve a murder (or two) in each novel. First in the series is Death at the Chateau Bremont (2011). An investigation into the suspicious death of an aristocrat with whom law professor Marine Bonnet is well-acquainted reunites Judge Verlaque with his former lover in a most impromptu fashion.
Death on the Vines (2013) finds Verlaque and Bonnet pondering the theft of valuable wine from a vintner, the disappearance of a French justice’s wife and the murder of a young local. Are they connected? In Murder on the Ile Sordou (2014), Verlaque and Bonnet begin a relaxed holiday at a newly re-opened island resort only to have it turn into a murder investigation. The best thing about each novel in this series is that they are as much about lifestyle in the south of France as they are about a legal tangle, a disappearance or a murder.
Antoine Verlaque is the Chief Magistrate of Aix and unlike many examining judges in France, he takes a first-hand role in criminal investigations in and around the city. When he is called to the scene of Antoine de Bremont’s suicide after a six month working vacation, he notes a youthful photograph of the two Bremont brothers alongside Marine Bonnet, someone with whom he parted uneasily six months previously. When he unexpectedly requests her presence at the crime scene, Bonnet reinforces the idea that Bremont was not suicidal, quite the opposite in fact. The more Verlaque discovers in the investigation, the more suspicious he becomes that foul play is at the heart of Bremont’s death and that he has been less than wise in his dealings with Bonnet.
Although I have enjoyed all the Verlaque and Bonnets, I think Death on the Vines is my favorite probably because I still have romantic illusions about wine-making and vineyard cultivation. All the novels are long on atmosphere, but by this third in the series, Longworth, shows the reader why those who love Donna Leon’s Brunetti and Martin Walker’s Bruno take up her novels with enthusiasm.
With each novel we learn more about the countryside of Provence – how is looks – the light, the fragrances and how the Provence comes alive through the characters we meet. Here Verlaque has invested in a vineyard not only because the investment and ownership appeals to him but he does so in a large part to employ a winegrower in whom he has great confidence. Of course vineyards figure greatly in where a body is discovered and also in the inexplicable theft of priceless vintages but as these characters work to restore order and enjoy their lives we readers are encouraged by example to appreciate the value in our own culture.
The culture of the French vacation informs Murder on the Ile Sordou. The resort on the Ile de Sardou, a few miles offshore the city of Marseilles, was trending in the 1960s, so the new owners hope that refurbishing the resort in its original 60s style will tempt tourists to want to experience the heyday of celebrities like Jean Paul Belmondo, Brigitte Bardot and Francois Sagan whose cool, sensuality and intellect were central to France’s image during those times and ever after.
An elite collection of guests are invited for the opening weekend and among them are the on again off again couple Antoine Verlaque and Marine Bonnet. In the aftermath of the inevitable crime that takes place among the guests on the isolated Island, a power outage is contrived to delay the police and to keep the staff and guest incommunicado to muddy the investigative waters. Unfortunately for the murderer, the police are already well represented by an examining magistrate and professor of law who join forces investigate the crime and protect the guests and staff.
One of the salient virtues of these novels by Longworth is that their mystery elements and the conclusions usually surprise the reader. I enjoy her characters, and that each character, recurring or not, has a well-developed personality and place in each plot. I found the charming and entitled Verlaque by turns attractive and just too annoyingly self-sufficient to live, probably having taken his favorite poet Philip Larkin’s bleak poetry too much to heart, enjoying absence as much as presence. Bonnet’s frustrations with him are palpable but never pitiable. She may be in over her head in their relationship but she certainly keeps her head. She is admired and respected by her students and colleagues at the University of Aix.
The new Verlaque and Bonnet, The Curse of La Fontaine is due out 4/17 and I have already pre-ordered my copy.
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