Verlaque and Bonnet No. 6: The Curse of La Fontaine. By M.L. Longworth. Penguin. $15.
There is no charm in murder, but there is much that is charming about murder in the Verlaque and Bonnet mysteries by M.L. (Mary Lou) Longworth. The reason is that death and killing are not central to these very Gallic explorations of fine wine, delicious food, lovely settings, and – quel dommage – the occasional corpse. The decidedly leisurely pace of these stories of examining magistrate Antoine Verlaque and law professor Marine Bonnet is integral to the charm and effectiveness of the novels. The sixth book in the series, The Curse of La Fontaine, starts with Antoine and Marine getting married at last, at a location described by Longworth with her usual thoroughness, pleasant verbiage and sure eye for detail. Then the book meanders through a series of neatly titled chapters: “Verlaque Eats a Disappointing Lunch,” “Paulik Thinks, ‘Welcome to the Real World,’” “Suzette’s Ginger Shrimp,” and so forth. The linchpin of the story is the discovery of a skeleton in a shallow grave next to a fountain in Aix-en-Provence, where Longworth has lived for 20 years. Longworth takes time out from fine descriptive passages of food and scenery to create a context for the discovery and produce the central mystery. The basic story is that restaurateur Bear Valets plans to introduce outdoor seating at his upscale “La Fontaine,” which means placing tables in a courtyard that the establishment shares with neighbors – who fear noise and disruption and seek ways to thwart the plan. It is while digging a garden that Valets discovers the body – at the spot where a peasant was once executed for failing to salute the king.
It is this body that forms the central mystery here, as Verlaque is called to investigate it and discovers that it is probably only about eight years old – dating to the time when the son of a local count disappeared. Lest that seem too neat a solution (the son proves to have been the proverbial “black sheep” of the family), Verlaque discovers a monarchist plot (with Bonnet going undercover into a royalist group to look for possible connections with the killing), human trafficking, and drug sales, not to mention the Association Historique Aixoise. Oh, and the fountain where the skeleton is found has a local reputation as being cursed.
There are, as usual in these genially written books, echoes of other well-mannered mysteries, as well as some tropes of the field, such as, in this case, threats that start coming to Valets and require some of Verlaque’s investigative energy. Verlaque’s position as “examining magistrate” does not exist in the English-speaking world, but it is essentially that of formally sanctioned detective. Verlaque is also a great enjoyer of the finer things of French life, including the pleasant company of sophisticated (and frequently well-connected) neighbors and friends. Most of the characters here are not explored in much depth, but their surroundings are: the Verlaque and Bonnet books are all about the setting and the circumstances of the stories, far more than they are about any sort of action or character development (although personalities that are explored at length and in depth, especially those of the protagonists, are limned so effectively that readers will feel they really know these people as people).
A major reason for staying with the slow unraveling of this and other Verlaque and Bonnet mysteries is to experience some unalloyed Francophilia. This is also why the books will not be to all readers’ taste. When Bonnet tells Verlaque, “I once had a friend who said that Sartre and Beauvoir lied to each other and everyone else,” adding that “Sartre was a classic philanderer straight out of Molière and Beavoir put up with it,” readers who are not steeped in the lives of French philosophers may find the subject matter confusing or, worse, boring. And when, after listening carefully, Verlaque says to Bonnet, “Just give your readers the facts and make it an enjoyable read,” it is necessary to accept the multi-level reality that Verlaque’s advice is sincere and integral to (and reflective of) his personality, but it is not advice in which the actual author of this pleasantly discursive book, Longworth, has any interest – or for which she has any empathy. “Just the facts” is an American approach to detective work. “La vie est si intéressant!" (“Life is so interesting!”) is a better encapsulation of The Curse of La Fontaine and the other tales of Verlaque and Bonnet.
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