M.L. Longworth recently talked on Criminal Element about mysteries set in small towns. Her latest mystery, A Noël Killing, the eighth volume of her Verlaque and Bonnet series, is set in Aix-en-Provence.
Actually, Aix-en-Provence counts 143,00 inhabitants, so not really a small town, especially for French standards. It is currently the twenty-second most populated city in France.
Still, M.L. Longworth manages to create a homey ambiance to her novel, with the Christmas market on Cours Mirabeau and carols in cathedral Saint-Sauveur. I liked the balance the author reached between the local elements—a tight group of people knowing each other, plus the Corsican mafia!, and the international dimension, as Aix-en-Provence’s sister cities (from Italy, Germany, England, Tunisia, and the United States) come every year to sell their wares at the Christmas market. Though technically, Philadelphia is not a sister city of Aix, just a partner city, that is, both cities try to develop special relationships in the world of culture, university education, and economics.
The description of the city, with its famous places, streets, plazas, and restaurants, and of the food offered there, is nicely done.
Damien Petit carefully set his bicycle down on what looked like clumps of wild thyme. He could smell its lemony fragrance, or at least he thought he could; it was mixed with pine needles and other wild herbs that made up the garrigue. Taking off his small backpack, he lowered himself onto the dry ground and rested his back against a pine tree. He looked at the looming Mont Sainte-Victoire, Cézanne’s obsession. The craggy white mountain was still about a fifteen-minute bike ride away, but given its size it looked much closer. It was almost as if he could reach out and touch it. He opened his pack and took out a ham sandwich and began eating, thinking of Cézanne and how the artist would walk daily, even into his sixties, the route that Damien had just biked.
The Christmas festivities turn sour, however, when a local businessman is killed at the reception following the carols. The list of potential local and international suspects is impressive, and examining magistrate Verlaque and his wife need to put all their resources together to discover who did it and why. Especially as several characters appear to be obnoxious, strange, or even shady.
I have not read the first seven books in the series, and maybe this was a major handicap. I felt totally overwhelmed by the number of characters. I counted no less than seventy. And at the beginning of the story, I tried hard to keep track of each of them, obviously not knowing which ones were going to be relevant to the plot. Unfortunately, most were not, and I am not sure why the author felt the need to specify so many first and last names, for characters mentioned only once in passing. Maybe that was a way for the author to connect this mystery to the previous ones. I think a better balance could have been found.
My biggest criticism is actually that the mystery starts much too slowly. It is certainly important to set the scene and present the characters. But the crime does not happen until page 78. This felt too late for a 286-page novel, especially in the mystery genre. And because of the multiplicity of red herrings, the plot develops very slowly. The end was satisfying, though not stunning.
We are told that the author has been living in Aix for many years. I was therefore surprised by the inexactitude of several details. I do know the Aix-en-Provence region, and my father happens to live in a village mentioned in the book. So, why specify that it’s only fifteen minutes between it and Aix, whereas it’s at least thirty minutes, and usually more because of the traffic; and that Aix is only twenty minutes away from Marseille, when it’s at least an hour away! Details are important to give more real-life background to a novel, but they need to be correct.
There are also French mistakes. The word si is used incorrectly: si is indeed an emphatic oui, but we use it only after a negative sentence, not after an affirmative one. And on pages 68 and 69, le Front National is misspelled. The adjective national does not take a finale e, as le front is not a feminine noun, but a masculine one. As for the abbreviation of Monsieur, it is indeed only the letter M, but it always needs to be followed by a dot. M Petit looks really weird to French eyes. It should be M. Petit. This unfortunately reminds again the reader that if authors choose to insert foreign words in their novels, it is essential to ask a native speaker to check them.
I could multiply the problems related to language. Let it suffice to highlight one more. We read, “He tried translating A Streetcar Named Desire into French, but knew he didn’t have it quite right.” Why not? As movie or play titles go, this one has exceptionally the most literal translation in French: Un tramway nommé désir.
VERDICT: If you want to try a Christmas mystery with a Provence setting, you may find A Noël Killing enjoyable.
It was too slow for me, and as I notice the same criticism applied by other readers to the first book in this series, I don’t think I’ll stay in the company of Verlaque and Bonnet. Joyeux Noël !