Those invaluable Michelin Green Guides often list books appropriate to the geographic area, which is how I found Susan Kiernan-Lewis’s Toujours Dead (2001), a rather obvious play on the ubiquitous Peter Mayle’s Toujours Provence. This is a follow on to Little Death by the Sea and precedes Murder in Provence, all termed “Maggie Newberry mysteries.” Maggie is from Atlanta, Georgia, but winds up in Provence when her boyfriend Laurent inherits a vineyard. (Peter Mayle’s A Good Year also features an inherited vineyard, but no dead bodies are found in the basement.)
Toujours Dead begins with the grisly murder of a family of four in the somewhat distant past circa World War II. It is to this estate where the crime took place that Laurent and Maggie arrive, assumedly to look it over and put it on the market, which is just what some of the land-hungry neighbors hope will happen. Unfortunately for them, Laurent discovers his passion for the land and wine-making, and Maggie begins to believe that her leave from her job in Atlanta may be longer than she wants.
Maggie tries to fit in with village life, getting to know a colorful group of characters, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker—well, maybe not that last one. But she is fretful about how well she, as an American, can acclimate to the French way of being. She takes solace in the friendship of independently wealthy Grace and Windsor Van Sant, who have a daughter who is surely one of the most unmannered creatures in literature. Why they are pursuing infertility treatment to have another child is beyond comprehension. Are they truly such superficial characters, or is there a lack of character development? The most descriptive moments in the novel arise not from the picturesque villages of Provence but from catalog-style descriptions of clothing such as the “cashmere catsuits” that Grace Van Sant is fond of wearing. To be specific: “Grace had changed from her country Chanel costume of a golden-chained blouse tucked into her tailored straight skirt and was now wearing a simple black cashmere catsuit. It fit her flawless figure like a coat of paint.” Not to be outdone, some pages later, “Maggie was dressed in an amber velvet catsuit. She had her hair in a ponytail down her back and fastened with a gold clasp.”
Unfortunately, the characters–neither the spunky Maggie nor the hunky Laurent—inspire much sympathy in the reader. They seem almost as superficial as the Van Sants. This mystery definitely would fit in the guilty pleasure category although personally, there was not much pleasure in the reading.
I preferred M. L. Longworth’s Death at the Chateau Bremont (2011), the first in a planned series featuring Antoine Verlaque and Marine Bonnet. The sexual tension between these former lovers is palpable, reminiscent of Dorothy Sayers’ wonderful duo Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey, although Longworth is not quite of the same stature as Sayers. Verlaque is a judge but a judge who can also investigate, thus providing the detective for the plot; Bonnet is a professor of law. She is a native of Provence and adores the countryside, whereas he is a Parisian and patrician with rather insufferable high standards for wine and food. Her lack of cultivation—although she’s not clinking her fork between her teeth or anything equally odious—is what led them to break up after what seemed a satisfying, even passionate, love affair. But the flame still burns for each of them. Mind you, it doesn’t stop him from bedding Lady Emily when he’s on a six-month leave in Paris. And she has moved on to another boyfriend as well.
The outcome of “will they get back together” vies with the question of “who killed Etienne Bremont.” Bremont “accidentally” falls from an attic window at the family estate, a chateau that hasn’t been kept up very well, and there are many suspects, including playboy brother Francois, a polo player who hangs out on the Riviera and who may be connected to the Russian mafia, which may be using high-priced models as call girls. Marine has a legitimate reason to be involved in the investigation, given that she was a childhood friend of the Bremont brothers and has special insight into them and the two other characters—the gardener and his sister—who also grew up on the estate as the children of a servant.
There are insider insights such as when Verlaque, sidekick Paulik, and Marine visit Cannes, he insists that the local police provide a car and driver as the traffic is so horrible. And the descriptions of French food and drink are mouth-watering. An American, Longworth is a long-time resident of Provence and Paris and knows of which she writes.
For the most part, Antoine and Marine are good partners for one another. But Longworth allows Marine to act stupidly near the end of the novel so that her life can be in danger and advance the plot, perhaps not so realistic for a professor of law who knows that two murders have occurred already on the estate and that the murderer is still at large.
While neither of these are of the quality of the work of Marcel Pagnol, truly a Provencal writer, they are fast reads that evoke the countryside and provide guilty pleasures for the trip.