Mystery, murder and mayhem among the vineyards of Rognes, a quiet Provençal village about 15 kilometres from Aix-en-Provence and one of the settings for this third in the Verlaque and Bonnet Provençal mystery series for M.L.Longworth, one time resident of Aix-en-Provence, who has herself decamped to one of the smaller villages of Provence, no doubt set to inspire more enticing destinations in future adventures of her detecting duo.
I reviewed her first mystery Death at the Château Bremont last year, when the author visited the book club I participate in. Since then there has been a second book Murder in the Rue Dumas and now we pick up with Judge Verlaque and his law professor amoureuse Marine Bonnet, in the third book, with as many gourmet references as we have come to expect previously.
The story begins in Rognes, with a wine theft and a missing persons report, a suspected walkabout. Some of the Bonnard winery’s best wines have disappeared, although the key to the cellar remains where it has always been and tensions are running high among family members, all of whom have become potential suspects.
Back in Aix, Madame Pauline d’Arras appears to have gone walkabout without her dog, most unusual according to her fretting husband Gilles, who has never gone a day in forty-two years of marriage without his wife preparing lunch for him by twelve-thirty. He is concerned as she has been exhibiting signs of possible early dementia.
In the village of Éguilles, a young woman leaves work early and is found later by a colleague in a bad state having been assaulted, she is taken to hospital and will soon become the subject of a suspected murder investigation.
Longworth has fun with not one, but three mysterious incidents and in particular some of the false leads which allow the Judge and us readers to go on various jaunts around the countryside, cross a famous bridge and dine in celebrated locations he would otherwise have had to wait to indulge in his own time.
Knowing the routes they take, this book offers more than just a tale of mild suspense, it is like an invitation to explore more of Provence, to imagine sampling its wines, observe its pastimes (boules) and picture the lives of its villagers and long-established wine cultivating families.
Just as the region itself is changing, the TGV(train à grande vitesse or high-speed train) line attracting more Parisian commuters and foreigners wishing to invest in the continuation of artisan expertise in the French vineyards; so too is the city of Aix changing, an entire new quartier of modern buildings housing cultural centres of opera, dance, music, a new shopping area, an upgraded bus station with Europe’s longest living wall, showing off the architectural stamp of Kengo Kuma, a name more at home in Tokyo, New York or Beijing. This town is ensuring it will continue to attract visitors interested not just in its intriguing and ancient past, but that it can show itself worthy of contemporary interest also.
However the long-established, multi-generation residents don’t always embrace the new and Longworth allows her characters to despise the new developments in the way of a local population and national character that loves nothing more than a good long debate, although she doesn’t indulge them quite that far.
The changes reflect a 21st century renewal and political statement, the creation of a legacy by a Mayoress who isn’t afraid to spend big on infrastructure during a recession and to court the popular vote. She spends with the frenzy of a woman who sees the finishing line in her sights. Will she survive the mayoral elections in 2014? It will be an interesting campaign to watch.
Overall, an entertaining and enjoyable light read that is all the better for allowing the reader to dwell among the vines and villages of a beautiful region.
Any book that allows one to travel when circumstances dictate that it not possible to physically go there, is the next best thing in my book.
Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.