Before Capucine and her husband, distinguished food critic Alexandre de Huguelet, even arrive at her oncle's 16th-century château, a fatal hunting accident has upset their idyllic destination. What's meant to be a peaceful bon voyage to the countryside--rustic picnics, dinners en plein air, and of course, a sip or two of Calvados--quickly sours as more "accidents" befall the guests. But the local gendarmerie lack the investigative finesse to draw any conclusions, let alone suspects, forcing Capucine to puzzle out the crimes herself. And when the bodies lead to a celebrated cattle ranch, the stakes rise beyond small-town grudges to the struggle surrounding France's most beloved gastronomic traditions.
"[A] countryside romp." --Kirkus Reviews
Praise for Alexander Campion's Crime Fraiche and The Grave Gourmet
"This new series offers a uniquely blended mix of ‘hooks' that will appeal to a wide variety of mystery lovers." --Booklist
"A feast of crime with a soupçon of gourmet delight." --RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars, on Crime Fraiche
"Full of amusing characters. . . Readers will want a second helping." --Publishers Weekly on The Grave Gourmet
"An astonishing debut that raises the bar on today's detective novel." --Aram Saroyan on The Grave Gourmet
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By ALEXANDER CAMPION
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Alexander Campion
All right reserved.
Chapter One"So she wants people to think she's what? Dead? Raped? I don't get it," Brigadier David Martineau said, lazily twisting a silky auburn lock around his index finger with far more insouciance than was normal for Police Judiciaire brigadiers.
Brigadier Isabelle Lemercier rose to the bait and rolled her eyeballs skyward, shaking her head, her rough cropped hair swaying angrily like wheat in a summer storm. "Look, numnuts, wake the fuck up. It's a scam. She's hoping some patsy will get all mushy and take her home and nurse her back to health, right, Commissaire?"
"That's the way she works it, Isabelle," Commissaire Capucine Le Tellier said. "She's—"
"In this town people go out of their way to ignore someone lying on the sidewalk. She's gotta be doing something special," David said, glaring at Isabelle.
"She does seem to have a gift," Capucine said with just enough steel in her voice to let her rank be felt. Both the brigadiers sensed they were at the threshold of going too far and straightened up in their chairs. "Apparently, she exudes a defenselessness that attracts people. She's done it three times so far. Once in the Sixth Arrondissement, where two American tourists took her in, then in Neuilly, where a retired senior civil servant befriended her, and now in the Twentieth, where two women, magazine illustrators, cared for her in their apartment."
"And there's bling in this?" David asked.
"Oh, very definitely," Capucine said, unclipping a lethal-looking black Sig service pistol from the small of her back, reclining in her government-issue swivel chair, putting her feet on the scarred top of her desk, and dropping the inch-thick file on her lap. She caught Isabelle admiring her legs and David her shoes, a brand-new pair of Christian Louboutin sling pumps that probably weren't really appropriate for police work, at least not in the Twentieth Arrondissement.
She was well aware this wasn't the tone commissaires were supposed to take with their brigadiers, but they were all on the same side of thirty and these were two of the three street-savvy flics who steered her through her first murder case a year before, when she was still a rookie in the Crim', the Police Judiciaire's criminal brigade. In fact, if it weren't for them, she'd probably be back watching the clock as a lieutenant in the fiscal fraud squad instead of running her own commissariat.
Beyond the glass wall of her office Capucine could see the third brigadier, Momo Benarouche—Momo to everyone—at his desk in the squad room, glowering at a pile of official forms as blue uniformed officers and unshaven, bejeaned, sneakered plainclothes detectives gave him as wide a birth as they could.
She snapped herself back to the present and tapped the file. "She's doing very well indeed with her con. By the way, our perp has been given a name. With their usual love of high culture, headquarters seems to think she's the archetypal Disney character and is calling her La Belle au Marché Dormant—the Sleeping Beauty of the Market."
David and Isabelle snorted derisively. Headquarters, the Direction Centrale de la Police Judiciaire, was well known for its tragicomic bureaucracy.
"The Americans were both professors of French philology at someplace called Valparaiso University, which, oddly enough, is in Indiana. They'd done an apartment swap for a month and—"
"Why the fuck would anyone who lived in the Sixth Arrondissement of the City of Light want to spend a month in Indiana?" David asked. "Man, things just keep getting weirder and weirder around here."
Capucine smiled at him with the tolerance of a parent for a wayward child. "After three days of tender loving care from these Indiana philologists, the Belle walked off with an illuminated page from a medieval langue d'oïl manuscript they had bought the week before. Apparently, the thing was rare enough for the Bureau of Antiquities to question if they would allow it to be taken out of the country."
Both Isabelle and David pursed their lips in respect. "It's nice their little problem was solved for them," Isabelle said.
"In Neuilly," continued Capucine, reading from the file, "she walked off with a Daumier caricature. The civil servant in question collects them. But this was the only one in his collection that was an original drawing and not a print. It's also worth thousands."
David and Isabelle nodded appreciatively.
"The two magazine illustrators, a couple, apparently"—Capucine paused for a beat while Isabelle looked up sharply—"were robbed of a small Marie Laurencin watercolor portrait of someone called Natalie Clifford Barney. It was the single picture stolen from among at least fifty in their apartment."
"Barney was a great person," Isabelle said, "an American writer who expatriated herself to Paris to become one of the pathfinders of the lesbian movement. I'm sure a portrait of her by Laurencin is worth a bundle."
"Voilà!" said David with a broad smile from which any trace of sarcasm had been scrupulously scrubbed. "Finally, the ideal case for our dear Isabelle."
Isabelle's pupils contracted and her face darkened. She punched David in the arm, putting her whole upper body behind the blow, visibly causing him considerable pain.
"In fact, David, I am putting Isabelle in charge. This inquiry is just what I'm going to need to support her application for promotion to brigadier-chef. And you're going to back her up—without any lip, understood?" Isabelle put her thumb to her nose and wiggled her fingers at David as he massaged his arm. "Here's the file," Capucine said, thumping the dossier on the desk in front of Isabelle. "I'm off for a week's vacation. You can tell me all about your dazzling progress when I get back."
"Where are you going, Commissaire?" Isabelle asked. "Some fabulous island in the Antilles?"
"No such luck. Just to my uncle's house in the country. I'm not sure how it's going to work out. It's the first time I've been down there since I joined the force. He was pretty upset at the time."
"Yeah, I got that, too," David said. "My mother was devastated."
"She had her heart set on you becoming a hairdresser, right?" Isabelle asked.
"My uncle tells everyone I'm a civil servant with the Ministry of the Interior," Capucine said. "I don't know how he's going to react to seeing me as a flic in the flesh."
"Why don't you wear your uniform?" Isabelle asked. "You look fabulous in blue, and all that silver braid would set off your hair."
From the look Capucine gave her, Isabelle knew for sure she had gone too far.
Chapter TwoWhen Capucine arrived at her apartment in the Marais, she found her husband, Alexandre, in his study, sprawled in a decrepit leather club chair, frenetically typing with two fingers on a laptop nestled against the gentle protuberance of his stomach, the stubby remnant of a Havana Partagas Robusto clenched between his teeth, an empty on-the-rocks glass perched precariously on the arm of the chair, and piles of newspapers and magazines heaped in a sloppy bulwark on the floor. As she walked in, he continued to stare fixedly at the screen and lifted one hand, index finger raised, wagging it slowly from left to right in supplication to be allowed to finish his sentence. Alexandre was the senior food critic for Le Monde, the grande dame of Paris journalism, and Capucine was well versed in the tensions of deadlines. He typed energetically.
"Voilà," he said, raising his cigar stub high over his head for histrionic effect. " 'Chef Jacques Legras' sole aim appears to be to astonish the bourgeois with vulgar pyrotechnics so far removed from the actual taste of food that what Marcel Pagnol said of aioli—if nothing else, it has the virtue of keeping flies at a distance—can be said of Legras' entire oeuvre.' What do you think of that? One more enemy of beauty and truth dealt the bloody nose he so richly deserves."
"What amazes me is that you say these things and these chefs are still delighted when you go back to their restaurants. If I were Chef Legras, I'd pee in your soup," Capucine said.
"In Legras' case it would be an improvement. Anyway, he's desperate for his third star and mistakenly feels he'll never get it unless I bestow my toothy smile on him. So he'll keep on trying until he goes to the great kitchen in the sky or learns to cook properly. Think of me as the great protector of French gastronomy soldiering cheek by jowl with the great defender of French deontology."
Refusing to be goaded, Capucine rocked the unstable pile of newspapers on the floor with an elegant toe. "Are you erecting fortifications as a defense against being carted off to the country?"
"Pas du tout. I'm officially on vacation as of right now!" Alexandre said, tapping the "ENTER" button with élan, closing the laptop with a snap, and dropping it on top of the pile of newspapers, which threatened to topple. "Copy submitted. Pastoral rustification about to begin. A whole week of communion with the spirits of wood and wind and you and most especially you!" Alexandre said, standing up and bending his wife backward in a thirties Hollywood kiss.
Gasping for breath, Capucine said, "Don't get any ideas. We have to pack. You promised. Oncle Aymerie is expecting us for lunch tomorrow. Remember, a quick lunch just with the family, then dinner with some guests, and then a pheasant shoot on Sunday. He said it would be his first time out in a week. I can't imagine why. Normally he shoots every day in season."
Alexandre said something, but since he was nibbling her neck, Capucine missed the gist. As she was about to reply, he swept an arm under her legs and picked her up. Capucine's mood played a vigorous volley between irritation and attraction. For a half second her muscles prepared a blow that had probably been used by the police since the long-gone days when street savate was the accepted means of dealing with the vicious apaches. But at love-forty she relaxed and melted into Alexandre's arms. Her friends could never believe that her relationship with a husband almost twice her age could be so physical, but it really was.
The next morning Capucine woke at a respectable hour and, not finding her satin robe, went to the kitchen as she was. She deftly made coffee with the Pasquini, a professional machine she had given Alexandre for Christmas years before, which, somehow, he was unable to master, his only failing as a consummate chef. Certain that Alexandre would not rise before eleven, she racked her brains for an excuse to offer Oncle Aymerie for missing his welcoming lunch. She was fully aware that if Alexandre walked in while she was in her current déshabillé, they would probably miss dinner as well, but she brooded on, tranquil in the knowledge that it would take an earthquake to rouse him.
This visit to the country had been like a canker in her mouth that she could not resist exploring with her tongue no matter how much the probing hurt. Of the family, Oncle Aymerie, her mother's elder brother—the paterfamilias who had inherited the title, the sixteenth-century château, and the fortune to keep it up—had been the most dismayed at her decision to join the police and the least sympathetic to her explanation that intimate contact with the grit of Paris's streets was essential to her blossoming as a person. As a result, she had not been back to Maulévrier in three years, even though she deeply missed the surrogate childhood home her parents had consigned her to as they departed on their frequent world travels. When Oncle Aymerie had called a few weeks before, she had suddenly felt he might be, maybe, finally ready to attempt a reconciliation. But as she sipped her coffee, her confidence evaporated and she toyed with the idea of picking up the phone and booking tickets for Guadeloupe before it was too late.
Two coffees later her resolve had returned and she heard Alexandre grunting and thumping his way into the bathroom. She beat a hasty retreat, slipped on a pair of jeans and an oversized Breton fisherman's sweater, returned to the kitchen, and had the Pasquini whistling away cheerfully by the time he came in.
"You won the battle but not the war," Capucine said. "We've missed lunch but are going to leave as soon as we've packed. We'll eat on the road."
"Lunch on the road?" Alexandre grimaced. "Poisoned by fast food on the autoroute? Never. That's no way to start a holiday. But don't despair. The good news is that it just so happens that I've been invited to the opening of a new little bistro only a few streets away. We can dart in, have a little something sur le pouce—on our thumbs, as they say—before we zip off to Normandy."
Capucine ground her teeth. She knew all about whisking in and out of restaurant openings. Her irises darkened from their normal cerulean to the purple of a stormy sea in midwinter. These physiological changes were not lost on Alexandre, who, with as much dignity as he could muster, trotted off to the bedroom to pack, coffee cup in hand, Capucine close in his wake.
As Alexandre started filling his suitcase, Capucine was again reminded that she had been married to Alexandre little more than two years and that, even though she knew he had extended family vaguely in the country, she had no experience of him extra-muros—beyond the walls of Paris. As he made neat piles of his country togs on the bed, she found it hard to imagine he had ever left Paris at all. He unfolded and admired a pair of extraordinarily baggy knickers that she thought might possibly match a disreputable tweed jacket she refused to allow him to wear outside the apartment.
"What is that thing?" she asked.
"The knickers to my shooting suit. Plus fours. They were my father's. He was an excellent shot. Quite famous, really."
"Dear, it's true people do wear knickers shooting, but they haven't worn them as baggy as that for more than fifty years. You're going to look like Tintin. All you'll need is a little white dog."
Alexandre scowled and pulled a battered leather gun case from the back of the closet. He opened it lovingly and fit together an elegantly engraved, if diminutive, shotgun. It might have been made for a child.
"That looks a bit insubstantial," Capucine said.
"It was my mother's," Alexandre said. "Sixteen-gauge, that's what women shot in those days. More ladylike and the shells were cheaper. I had the stock reworked so it would fit me."
"I would have thought it was difficult to bring anything down with something as lightweight as a sixteen-gauge."
"It is. That's why I like it. I'm a terrible shot, and this way I can blame the gun. In any case I avoid shooting religiously. It's just as boring as golf, and the noise gives you splitting headaches. Mind you, every now and then you do get a half-decent lunch."
"Oh please, you know you love eating game."
"Up to a point. Unless properly hung and exceptionally well cooked, pheasant is as boring as battery-bred chicken. Mind you, there is an interesting element of Russian roulette involved. If you chew too vigorously, you stand a good chance of breaking a tooth on a pellet of shot. Still, there's no point to suffering through all that cold and damp. All you need, as you well know, is a handful of acquaintances who are shooting enthusiasts. By the middle of October they blanch at the thought of eating another pheasant and will go to any lengths to get you to accept cartloads of their wretched birds."
The facetious vein was one of Alexandre's favorites, and, once started, he was capable of amusing himself with it for hours on end. Capucine let him run on and packed her own two bags. That done, she eyed her Police Judiciaire issue Sig in its quick-draw holster that fit so neatly into the small of her back and decided there would be no need for it. She took a diminutive Beretta Px4 Storm Type F Subcompact—the official off-duty sidearm—out of the drawer of her night table, eased the slide back to peek into the chamber to make sure there was a cartridge inside, and dropped the toy-sized pistol into the silk compartment in the side of her suitcase. She added in two extra clips and decided that forty rounds of 9-millimeter ammunition was more than enough for anything she was likely to encounter during the next week.
"You're not planning on ridding the region of poachers with all that, I hope."
Capucine was not amused. She elbowed Alexandre painfully in the ribs and said, "If we're going to lunch, let's do it now. Missing dinner as well would be unforgivable."
Excerpted from CRIME FRAÎCHE by ALEXANDER CAMPION Copyright © 2011 by Alexander Campion. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Fun read, although the beginning seemed a bit slow. For me, Capucine and Alexandre had the flavor of Nick and Nora Charles, which I very much enjoyed. Additionally, I was very pleased that the person I picked as the "perp" had nothing to do wtih the murders, and I was surprised at who did "do it." Always a plus for me. I'm going to read the previous one in this series now, and future ones as well. P.S. The meal descriptions will make your mouth water, if you're a foodie, as am I!
In Paris, Police Judicaire Commissaire Capucine LeTellier is diligently working with a team trying to catch the criminal La Belle. She allows herself, after feigning illness, to go to her rescuer's house and steals some valuables while there. No one knows what she looks like or have a clue how to find her, which leads to the media wanting Capucine's tete. Capucine's Uncle Aymerie invites her to his Chateau Maulevrier in Normandy ending a two year estrangement. She and her overweight food critic spouse Alexandre accept. At a dinner party, Monsieur Vienneau talks about the shooting two weeks ago of a cattle ranch manger. When a man is found dead after a steak house is demolished, Capucine's instincts are engaged. During another hunt a third person is killed. The Commissaire investigates the string of deadly accidents while also working the La Belle case in Paris. Armchair travelers get a taste of Paris and a small town in Normandy as Alexander Campion paints a picturesque background. The author creates quirky characters with flaws that make them seem real. The two subplots are cleverly devised and the flow back and forth between them is smooth as the cop goes after the killer and the thief in a super French police procedural. Harriet Klausner