October 02, 2014
(+++) CIVILIZED DEATH
Murder on the Île Sordou. By M.L. Longworth. Penguin. $15.
A leisurely paced, elegant gastronomic adventure that just happens to have a killing at its center, M.L. Longworth’s Murder on the Île Sordou is the fourth in a series featuring examining magistrate Antoine Verlaque and his law-professor girlfriend, Marine Bonnet – “Chubby Man” and “Pretty Woman,” as they are described by a staff member of the hotel on an island off Marseille, where they have gone for a quiet vacation that is interrupted by the untimely death of another hotel guest.
Longworth is equally comfortable in French and English, having even written a bilingual essay collection, but the sensibility of this novel is distinctly Gallic, and readers need to understand that to get its full flavor. Indeed, flavor is much of what the book is about, containing as it does loving descriptions of various meals and their ingredients, and sophisticated banter in which Bonnet teases Verlaque by saying a wine is a Bordeaux when she knows it is really a Burgundy. The matter-of-fact attitude toward physical relationships is rather French as well, as when Bonnet tells her friend, Sylvie, how she and Verlaque spent the afternoon: “We had sex twice, then a nap.” And non-French speakers had best be prepared for the casual, untranslated use of phrases such as les hublots (portholes) and “A la prochaine!” (“until next time,” a cheerful farewell to a restaurant patron). It helps as well to know what the TGV is (France’s high-speed train) and what RER refers to (express trains that connect Paris to its suburbs).
Readers who enjoy all this and want to settle in for a visit to some unfamiliar climes will find Murder on the Île Sordou quite charming, even if the murder itself – which does not occur until halfway through the book – is never as interesting as the descriptions of the place where it occurs and the people among whom it takes place. The book’s basic outline is a very old one: people are in isolated circumstances (as, for instance, the Orient Express) when someone is killed, and the protagonist must analyze not only the present but also the victim’s past in order to figure out what happened. The “examining magistrate” (a position that does not exist in the U.S. but that, for all intents and purposes here, is essentially that of a detective) has a relaxed, almost-world-weary-but-not-quite air about him, with his love for Bonnet, cigars and fine wines as integral to his personality as his determination to find out what happened to the has-been actor who has been killed. Both Verlaque and Bonnet are attractive characters, as is Bonnet’s best friend, Sylvie, although she is more of a “type” than they are – artistic, sexually adventurous, tart-tongued, and so forth.
Actually, Longworth makes it clear that she is well aware of the sort of book she is writing and the genre conventions within which she keeps it. One character says of another, “He’s straight out of a novel,” and indeed that is so. “This is sheer Agatha Christie,” comments Sylvie at one point, and that is so true, in so many ways, that readers who know Christie’s many books will smile wryly, perhaps even chuckle, at the comment. From time to time, Longworth does slip into genre clichés, as when she has one character tell another, “I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about,” which of course means there is, or when all the lights suddenly go out before the killer is identified. By and large, though, Longworth accepts the conventions within which she writes and stretches them gently for her own purposes. Indeed, “gentle” is a word that fits Murder on the Île Sordou quite well: the central murder is not dwelled on or described in too much detail, the eventual solution ties everything up very neatly (rather too neatly, in fact), and the book as a whole reads like a pleasant travelogue interrupted by a touch of, oh my, something untoward. Pleasant rather than compelling, Murder on the Île Sordou is a murder mystery for those less interested in “whodunit” than in where and why it was done, and what wines were drunk with which freshly prepared meals while the whole matter was being discussed in an atmosphere of warmth and camaraderie.