Written by ML Longworth — This book is being publicised as the fourth in the Verlaque and Bonnet Provencal mystery series set in or around Aix-en-Provence, but fear not if you are new to the series. It had not previously registered on my Francophile radar either, and it stands well enough on its own two feet. The setting is a hotel on a secluded island just off the coast near Marseille, and it’s written by an American journalist turned writer, who spends at least half of each year in that part of the world.
So, while it does fall into the tourist crime fiction category – not too horrendous murders in a beautiful location, with a gastropub’s worth of culinary delights and more than a sprinkling of local atmosphere – it also contains enough cultural references to put a smile on the faces of those who love all things French.
If you are thinking that an odd assortment of guests on an island is one of crime fiction’s great clichées, you are right of course. And sure enough, after some tensions between various guests and some hints at deeper secrets dwelling in the past of both guests and staff, a murder occurs. The police investigation and a stormy sea then prevent anyone from leaving the island, and it becomes clear that one of the people present must be the murderer. Just as well that Antoine Verlaque, a juge d’instruction (examining magistrate, who in France leads such inquiries together with the police) and his girlfriend Dr Marine Bonnet, professor of law, are present to solve the mystery.
There are a few red herrings, but this is not a tale of twists and turns that will have you on the edge of your seat. There is oddly little sense of menace, and hence no mad rushing around against the clock to prevent any further murders. Instead, each character is questioned at length, followed by consultations between Judge Verlaque, Prof Bonnett and their police inspector friend Paulik, who joins in the investigation. It’s all very civilised, even the murderer is extremely well brought-up, and we also get a free recipe for a Bloody Mary.
So the pleasure comes from the setting and also from the vividly drawn cast of characters. A few of them may come across as stereotyped like the slightly sinister recluse and former lighthouse-keeper, but overall they are an interesting bunch. There is a self-absorbed film star past his prime, his long-suffering wife, their angry teenage stepson, a middle-aged American couple who seem bowled over by European food and customs, a retired schoolteacher who wants to focus on poetry, a sporty young man who does not mind acting as a gigolo on occasion, a talented young chef keen to make his mark on the gastronomic world, his star-struck but enthusiastic helper, and the hosts themselves, who have invested all of their life savings to make this hotel a going concern.
The main character himself, Verlaque, can sometimes come across as snobbish and the author’s constant reference to his inherited wealth can turn wearisome. Perhaps the intention is to make him a modern-day Lord Wimsey? However, Marine is a good foil, and there is genuine good humour and banter between the characters to make the story come alive. A pleasant holiday read, especially if you are fond of the Mediterranean lifestyle.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars