October 01, 2015
(+++) A PLEASANT STROLL WITH DEATH
The Mystery of the Lost Cézanne. By M.L. Longworth. Penguin. $15.
A murder mystery in which the murder is almost beside the point – or, in this case, in which the murders, plural, seem scarcely central to the narrative – this fifth of M.L. Longworth’s series featuring examining magistrate Antoine Verlaque and his law-professor girlfriend, Marine Bonnet, proceeds at the same comfortable, familiar pace as earlier series entries. Like its predecessors, The Mystery of the Lost Cézanne is a book into which a reader immerses himself or herself gently and gingerly, as if into a bath whose water is perhaps a touch too hot at first but will surely feel delicious once one is surrounded by it for a time.
The immersion here is into a very French world, specifically one centered on Provence and its artists – Cézanne above all, but also Cézanne’s friends and contemporaries: Manet, Monet, Gauguin, Zola. Longworth is equally comfortable in French and English, having even written a bilingual essay collection, but the sensibility of this novel and its predecessors is distinctly that of France, and readers need to understand that to get the books’ full flavor. Indeed, flavor is much of what The Mystery of the Lost Cézanne is about, containing as it does loving descriptions of various meals and their ingredients, a variety of wines, and the pleasures of cigars and cigar clubs.
Ah yes, the murders. Well, there must be some plot mover beyond that of the relationship between Verlaque and Bonnet, after all (although elements of that relationship are in their way every bit as important in this book as is the criminal investigation). It seems that someone may have found a previously unknown painting by Cézanne, a portrait of an unknown Aixoise with whom he had an affair in 1885 (the affair really did happen, although Longworth invents the specifics). The discoverer of the maybe-authentic painting is soon dispatched, and when Verlaque arrives on the scene shortly after the killing, he finds an American art expert standing over the man’s body. This instant suspect – who thus, by the usual standards of murder mysteries, cannot possibly be guilty – is the stunningly attractive Rebecca Schultz, who describes herself as “a black Jewish woman who had worked all her life to finally get a white Anglo-Saxon man’s job,” and explains her failure to call the police immediately by telling an investigator that if “you were caught trespassing and entering where there had just been a murder, you, too, would have thought twice before deciding to phone for help instead of running straight out the door.”
Ah, but Schultz is not quite as innocent as she seems, or not quite as innocent as she ought to seem in light of how guilty she seems – this sort of twist is a Longworth specialty and part of the charm of The Mystery of the Lost Cézanne. A further twist here is the killing of the person who apparently killed the discoverer of the possible Cézanne; but this is more of a necessary plot element, to keep the story going somewhere, than a reason to sink comfortably into the novel. A better reason is the subtlety with which Longworth continually pauses in the narrative to deepen readers’ relationships with the central characters: Verlaque “smiled, thinking of the conversation with the Alsatian shop owner, thankful that he could have interesting chats such as the one they had just had, with people he didn’t know intimately.”
Another good reason for staying with the slow unraveling of the mystery is to experience some unalloyed Francophilia. Readers must be prepared for unexplained references to the TGV (France’s high-speed train); a chapter entitled “Dedans/Dehors” (which is simply “inside/outside,” but sounds so much better in French); a reference to “gendarmes and police [who] work together” that will puzzle readers unfamiliar with the French law-enforcement system; repeated instances of the bise, that quintessentially French “air kiss” greeting; and several wry comments on what it means to drive a Renault Kangoo (a Google Image search helps). The best reason of all for full involvement here, though, is to watch and be privy to the increasingly intricate and altogether believable relationship of the almost-but-not-quite-world-weary Verlaque and the intelligent, attractive, successful – yet in some ways unsure of herself and her hopes and desires – Bonnet. The determined lack of visceral detail about the murders, the murder scenes and the minds of criminals is matched by an equally determined level of attention to the ins and outs of the intertwined lives of Verlaque and Bonnet, and the way in which those lives, plural, are slowly but surely becoming a life, singular. This is, in the end, the greatest attraction of this pleasant (yes, pleasant) murder mystery: this is a novel for those less interested in “whodunit” than in why it was done, what wines were drunk with which freshly prepared meals while it was being investigated, and what thoughts the principal characters had while discussing the whole situation with thoroughly Gallic aplomb.