Death in the Vines by M. L. Longworth is the third in the Verlaque and Bonnet traditional mystery series set in Provence (available May 28, 2013).
Olivier Bonnard, the owner of Domaine Beauclaire winery, is devastated when he discovers the theft of a priceless cache of rare vintages. Soon after, Monsieur Gilles d’Arras reports that his wife, Pauline, has vanished from their lavish apartment. As Judge Antoine Verlaque and Commissioner Paulik tackle the case (with a little help from Marine Bonnet), they receive an urgent call: Bonnard has just found Madame d’Arras—dead in his vineyard.
Death in the Vines is the third novel in M.L. Longworth’s Verlaque and Bonnet series, and it evokes as strong a sense of place as the previous Death at the Chateau Bremont and Murder in the Rue Dumas. Whether a character is walking through the marketplace or law officers are driving through nighttime streets or a winemaker is wandering through his vineyard, Aix-en-Provence is brought to life through Longworth’s narrative, becoming as much of a character as the living, breathing men and women.
Mme d’Arras zigzagged her way past the large-scale vegetable sellers and gave them an intentional scowl. Any sellers who had bananas, pineapples, and limes definitely did not grow their own food in Provence: they bought their produce wholesale in warehouses in Marseille. Her favorite seller, Martin, had a small stall at the far end of the market, and he sold organic vegetables that he grew on a farm north of Aix. She squeezed past a group of tourists taking pictures of spices, and gave them a good nudge with her basket: Don’t they realize that some people have to actually shop and cook? Mme d’Arras smiled as she approached Martin’s stall, but her smile faded when she saw the queue. So…other Aixoses are catching on to Martin’s excellent produce.
Longworth establishes the characters through their relations to place, which works very well to give characters background. But in this murder mystery the settings become even more intriguing—every space becomes a potential crime scene and you’re not sure which details are the telling details.
When Bonnard initially reports the theft of his wines, he says that everything is in its proper place, with the exception of the wine. However, the details that Longworth gives the reader (a lock that hasn’t been tampered with and the keys hanging in the correct place) are rendered irrelevant when the police consult with a former wine-thief—Hippolyte Thébaud.
“We believe that the thief is someone who knows the family, and the winery.”
Thébaud sat back and put his hands behind his head.
“Because the lock hadn’t been tampered with, and the key was found in its usual spot, beside the kitchen door.”
“Classic!” Hippolyte Thébaud cried out. “Vintners are so imaginative! They hide the keys to their cellars—whether in Argentina, Alsace or Adelaide—all in the same idiotic place. Any fool could have slipped in and made a copy. I’ve done it before, while pretending to check the electricity meter. Next!”
And, while there is a murder to be solved and clues to be puzzled out by a very dedicated Verlaque and Marine Bonnet, it can’t be forgotten that this is France and there is food to be enjoyed. If Longworth’s descriptions of place are evocative and the descriptions of police procedures are accurate (and they are)… the image of food she creates is enough to make the reader jump on a plane to Aix-en-Provence.
She came back into the living room carrying a platter of cheeses: a pyramid of chèvre from the Loire, a slice of Stilton, and a Saint-Marcellin that was so runny it could only be served with a small spoon. She went back into the kitchen for the wine and glasses, and when she came back, her father was leaning over the coffee table, a small knife in hand, anxious to cut into the pyramid.
“A Pouligny Saint-Pierre,” he said, beginning to cut into the cheese, its inside as smooth and white as marble.
Death in the Vines is a well-balanced story of murder, food, and France. Longworth uses description—of food, of place, of character—as a huge narrative strength. While the central murder is pretty devastating (mostly because of how Longworth sets up Mme d’Arras as a feisty lady, full of life and attitude) and there are elements of rather violent crimes the police are dealing with, there is a unique, elegant element to the way the story is told. Vines is worth sinking into with a good glass of wine.
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Jenny Maloney is a reader and writer in Colorado. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in 42 Magazine, Shimmer, Skive, and others. She blogs about writing at Notes from Under Ground. If you like to talk books, reading, publishing, movies, or writing feel free to follow her on Twitter: @JennyEMaloney.