Author M. L. Longworth (M.L. stands for Mary Lou) has lived in Aix-en-Provence, France since 1997 and it shows in her delightful debut mystery, Death at the Chateau Bremont. The book is dubbed “A Verlaque and Bonnet Mystery,” and is intended to be the first in a series. The characters and settings of the novel are so enjoyable that readers will be happy to come back to Provence and discover new adventures with chief magistrate Antoine Verlaque, and his ex-girlfirend and law professor, Marine Bonnet.
A young count, Etienne de Bremont, has taken a fatal fall out the attic window of the family’s broken-down chateau and Verlaque, as le juge d’instruction, must determine if his death was an accident, suicide, or something else entirely. Verlaque had broken up six months ago with the woman who may be the love of his life, Marine Bonnet, who also happens to be Bremont’s childhood friend. The inquiry into Bremont’s death may be a convenient way for him to get close to Marine again, as he asks for her help on the case, but will it also be convenient for Marine, who is trying in vain to get over him?
In the course of their investigations the two also turn up possible links to the Corsican and Russian mafias as well as consume some wonderful wines and travel to the Cote d’Azur. The mystery is involving, and all of the people that Verlaque and Bonnet meet along the way are interesting, but the main charms of the book lie in their dance around each other and all the little details of life in southern France. No matter how pressing the case may be, Verlaque always has time for a multi-course lunch and some good wine. He is a connoisseur of not just wine and food, but also fine cigars.
There is a wonderful scene with Verlaque’s cigar club that illustrates how the French know how to indulge in such pleasures. Their lives are measured in what they eat and drink and how they talk and joke with each other. There is always time for an espresso, or to meet a friend at the local cafe for a glass of wine in the evening.
As Pierre, one of the cigar club members who isn’t independently wealthy, muses as he drinks fine champagne, “He closed his eyes and sipped, as if he was enjoying every bubble, and in fact he was. Bookstores didn’t — couldn’t — pay well, and being in the cigar club was his sole luxury. He repeatedly told himself that he would happily eat beans and rice all week in order to smoke hand-rolled Cuban cigars once a month with his group of friends.” It’s all about priorities. Longworth, like author Alexander McCall Smith, is good at writing about the little things that make life worthwhile, that indeed should be the bigger things in life.
Longworth also brings Aix-en-Provence to vivid life. Men and women greet each other, regardless of sex, with the bises, the double-kiss to each cheek. Cafe life is life. Shopping for the latest style, and paying great attention to one’s appearance, is also part of the routine. For anyone who has traveled to the south of France Death at the Chateau Bremont will be especially enjoyable, as the reader gets to join Longworth’s characters as they stroll the Cours Mirabeau.
Aix was not my favorite place to visit when I was in the south of France, so I was as happy as the character of Marine when they escaped the land-locked city, which is loomed over by Cezanne’s famed Mont Ste. Victoire, and headed for Cannes and Nice. The author was just as at home there, describing the terrible traffic but wonderful sights, such as villas overlooking the ocean, and landmarks like the Hotels Carlton and Negresco and Old Nice.
Verlaque and Bonnet are both complex personalities, and the course of their true love is not likely to run smoothly, but in Death at the Chateau Bremont and, I’m sure, subsequent novels, the reader will want to join them as they eat and drink and solve their way through a mystery in Provence. You might want to crack open a bottle of wine, or make a cup of espresso and pick up some brioches — but make sure they are good ones, or the food snob Verlaque would not approve — before settling down to read this entertaining mystery.