About the Author
Noël Balen lives in Paris, where he shares his time between writing, making records, and lecturing on music. He plays bass, is a music critic and has authored a number of books about musicians in addition to his novel and short-story writing.
Sally Pane studied French at State University of New York Oswego and the Sorbonne before receiving her Masters Degree in French Literature from the University of Colorado where she wrote Camus and the Americas: A Thematic Analysis of Three Works Based on His Journaux de Voyage. Her career includes more than twenty years of translating and teaching French and Italian at Berlitz and at Colorado University Boulder. She lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband.
Read an Excerpt
Late Harvest Havoc
A Winemaker Detective Mystery
By Jean-Pierre Alaux, Noël Balen, Sally Pane
Le French BookCopyright © 2015 Sally Pane
All rights reserved.
In just minutes, death would strike again.
The wax-colored skeleton, brandishing a heavy scythe in his left hand, would hit the bronze carillon with the ivory femur in his other hand: one clean hard stroke for each hour that had passed.
Renowned wine expert Benjamin Cooker was waiting, oblivious to the crowd gathering around him. But when the Bavarian tourists began elbowing and pushing him, he could no longer enjoy the moment. He stepped away from the enraptured spectators, who were cooing at the pudgy cherubs, one of them holding a bell and the other holding a sand clock, and oohing and aahing over the intricately carved cabinet, the Latin inscriptions, and the midnight-blue and gold face of the astronomical clock in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Strasbourg.
Benjamin took refuge at the Pillar of Angels to the right of the gigantic clock. He leaned against it. The coolness of the stone sent a shiver down his spine, and for some odd reason he thought of Virgile, his assistant. Where was he? Already flirting with some pretty young tourist at the back of the cathedral, no doubt. Oh well, he'd show up. Benjamin turned his attention to the tour guide.
"This was one of the seven wonders of Germany when Alsace-Lorraine was still German territory," the guide said before putting a finger to his lips to shush a pair of noisy visitors. The hand of the clock was about to reach twelve.
Death, laughing in the face of time, banged out the twelve strokes of noon, setting off the automata. One by one, the twelve apostles appeared and processed in front of Jesus: Simon, who was called Peter; Andrew, Peter's brother; James; John; Philip; Bartholomew; Thomas; Matthew, the tax collector; James, Thaddaeus; Simon; and Judas Iscariot.
A rooster at the highest point of the cabinet crowed and flapped its wings three times during this processional march, and Benjamin recalled Peter's renouncement of Jesus. "Before the rooster crows twice, you yourself will disown me three times," Jesus had told Peter the night before his crucifixion. The maker of this theatrical timepiece had been well versed in the Holy Scriptures.
Another group had gathered near the throng of Germans. They were elderly, and from what he could hear, Benjamin surmised they were members of a club from Provence.
"Mother of God!" one of them exclaimed each time a new figure appeared in the allegorical theater.
Benjamin heard them call their guide by name: Jeanne. She had silver hair and laughing eyes and clearly knew all about this cathedral and its timepiece. Her talk was peppered with intriguing and amusing anecdotes. He perked an ear and bristled when a few club members snickered at her German-like Alsatian accent.
"Legend has it that when this clock was completed, the astronomer who devoted his life to devising and building it had his eyes gouged out on the order of the city's magistrate."
"Why?" a woman asked, holding her purse close to her chest.
Jeanne narrowed her eyes and said quietly, "So that the artist could not reproduce such a work of art anywhere else."
"Did he die?" the purse clutcher asked.
"You'll notice that I said 'legend has it.' Not all legends are true," the guide said, inspecting Benjamin, who had surreptitiously infiltrated her group. "You, sir — you look like an educated man. Do you know if they really gouged out the eyes of the genius who created this clock?"
Benjamin felt the suspicious stares of the Provençal group, which did not recognize him as one of their own. Jeanne, however, took him by the arm as if to make him a privileged witness to the rest of her talk.
"So, my good fellow, tell me what you think."
"Um, to tell the truth, I have no informed opinion," Benjamin stammered.
Jeanne pushed her glasses to the bridge of her aquiline nose, lifted her chin, and began pontificating.
"As a matter of fact, the astronomer was much too old by then to recreate such a work. He soon became deaf and was unable to hear the ticking of this mechanism created for the glory of God. He descended into madness and lost all sense of time."
"Really?" Benjamin asked.
"Do you doubt my word, sir?" She looked him in the eye and smiled.
"All gifted storytellers embellish their accounts from time to time, and some even fabricate tales. Wouldn't you agree?" the winemaker said, holding her gaze.
"You force me to tell the truth," the guide conceded, clearly delighted that her presentation had struck a responsive chord with this elegant man in a Loden. "So pay close attention, Mr. ... What was your name?"
"As in Benjamin Franklin?"
"That's exactly right. As far as I'm concerned, this clock is as much an enigma as the lightning rod."
"Mr. Benjamin, I love your sense of humor."
"You are quite witty yourself, Madam," Benjamin replied with a smile. Then he removed his arm from hers. Enough flirting, he thought.
By now, some members of the club were whispering and sniggering. Obviously, they weren't amused by the diversion. Jeanne raised her voice and resumed her talk, addressing the entire group while still keeping her eye on Benjamin, who was so unlike the seniors she was leading through the cathedral.
From that point on, she punctuated each well-substantiated point with a question.
"Isn't that so?" she'd ask, looking at the winemaker.
"Actually, this is the third clock in the Strasbourg cathedral. The first was built in the fourteenth century, and we don't know who created it. Parts of it are now in the city's Oeuvre Museum of Decorative Arts. It was called the Three Kings Clock. The second one was built in the sixteenth century. When it stopped working in 1843, it was replaced by the clock you see here. Now, can anyone tell me who built this third clock?"
Jeanne drew out the suspense and inched closer to Benjamin, who stood stock still, his hands behind his back.
"A boy happened to visit this cathedral and was upset that the beautiful clock was broken. He asked one of the cathedral guards why it wasn't working, and the guard told him that no one in the country had the expertise to repair it. With that, the boy declared that he would be that man. His name was Jean-Baptiste Schwilgué. Fifty years after he vowed to repair the clock he finally got his opportunity. By this time he was versed in clock making, mathematics, and mechanics. In fact, he went on to invent the adding machine. Building this clock took four years and thirty workers."
"Is that all?" the winemaker asked.
"Yes, Mr. Benjamin. By the looks of it, this clock would have required far more time and many more workers. But Schwilgué was a genius. He had spent his entire life studying the astronomical clock. He even dreamed of making one with a glass cabinet that would allow everyone to see the mechanisms inside. But the city deemed the project too costly. Imagine the gem we would have today if he had been given free rein."
"Yes, but even as it is, this is a true jewel," Benjamin said.
"Indeed, it is," the Alsatian woman agreed, giving the winemaker a warm smile.
At the end of the tour, Benjamin thanked Jeanne and tried to slip a bill into her hand. She refused it and instead handed him her business card.
"Our cathedral has thousands of treasures," she whispered in his ear. "I would love to show you all of them — the heraldic sculptures, the three Last Judgment paintings, and, of course, the celestial globe studded with five thousand stars. You must see it! Let's make a date to meet another day. Shall we?"
"I'm too intimidated by this clock to give you a date, much less a precise time. Let's leave it to providence ..."
Benjamin hoped she would get the message. But instead of saying good-bye, she took his wrist and clung to it for a few seconds. The winemaker was silent. Finally, she let go and turned around to rejoin her tour group. Benjamin felt a twinge of guilt — was it because he had turned the woman down or because he had actually considered making that date with her? No, what he felt was pity for the guide. He was blessed with his wife, Elisabeth, whose intelligence and wit were beyond match.
Benjamin decided to look for Virgile and spotted his assistant ducking into a confessional to answer his cell phone. He'd have a word with him about that. But before he could give the reprimand a second thought, screams rose from the group gathered near the clock.
"Oh my God," someone shouted. "Get help, quick!"
"It's too late," a bald man said.
The winemaker retraced his steps and with some difficulty made his way through the crowd gathered around a small figure on the floor. Above the bloody forehead, he could see a mass of silver hair. Beside the body lay a pair of gold-framed glasses with broken lenses — Jeanne's glasses.
"What happened?" he asked.
"All of the sudden she just clutched her chest and dropped. She hit her head in the fall."
From his vantage point on the clock, the Grim Reaper attended the scene, a satisfied smile carved on his jaw. He waved his femur and struck the bell. It was exactly one o'clock in the afternoon.
When Benjamin Cooker pulled open the door of the centuries-old confessional, Virgile, as he suspected, was still on his device, cooing sweet nothings in the dark to a faraway lover.
Benjamin gestured toward the door, indicating he would wait outside. He made his way to the square in front of the cathedral. The holidays were approaching, and soon wooden chalets would fill this space and spill onto the neighboring side streets — they had since 1570. This was the site of France's largest and oldest Christmas market. Benjamin smiled at memories of strudel, wooden toys that delighted his daughter, Margaux, when she was young, and spices filling the air.CHAPTER 2
The Kammerzell House, where Benjamin and Virgile were dining, was one of Strasbourg's architectural splendors. It had been converted from a pub to a fine restaurant at the end of the nineteenth century, and recently a hotel had been added. Over the course of six centuries, thousands of patrons, both little-known and celebrated, had climbed the spiral staircase connecting the five floors of this food-lovers' temple. It was said that Guttenberg, Goethe, and Mozart had frequently eaten here. Now it was the winemaker's turn.
Benjamin, whose trek up the stairs had left him panting and feeling heavy, surveyed his surroundings. He admired the woodwork, the bottle-glass windows throwing iridescent colors on the white table linens, and the frescoes signed by Léo Schnug, an Alsatian painter known for his ruddy faces and naughty scenes seemingly right out of Boccaccio's Decameron.
Once they were seated, the maître d' was on guard. No wonder. Benjamin was examining the wine list and menu and pointing out the establishment's specialties as if he were already quite familiar with them. His serious-diner look could make any headwaiter jumpy, even one at such a legendary restaurant. His tailored British jacket and Virgile's casually classy attire — gray slacks, ash-rose shirt, and light-gray blazer — would only amplify the mistrust. The man probably suspected that he was a critic for an important food and wine guide — like the Cooker Guide! No matter. Benjamin had a way of making friends sooner or later with a good restaurant's staff. For him, dining was an experience to be savored from start to finish.
"I'll begin with the foie gras de canard in gewürztraminer aspic. What about you, Virgile?"
"A dozen escargots Kocher —"
"Kochersberg," Benjamin clarified. "That's an excellent choice."
Ever since they had arrived in Alsace, Virgile had been mangling Alsatian words — for fun. He even suggested they were invented solely for the purpose of winning points in Scrabble.
"And next, may I suggest —"
Benjamin undermined the maître d's obsequiousness by immediately choosing a cuissot de porcelet rôti aux épices douces.
"Ah, our delicately spiced suckling pig is a fine choice. It's precisely the dish that I —"
"Excellent." The winemaker grinned at the waiter, pretending to be pleased that they had the same selection in mind. Virgile, meanwhile, was still trying to decide between beef tartar and the three-fish sauerkraut.
"That is the house specialty," the maître d said.
"Let's honor Alsace. Right, boss?"
"Absolutely," Benjamin said with a nod. "Provided, of course, that the three fish were caught in the River Ill or, failing that, in the Rhine."
"Alas, sir, I cannot guarantee that. May I leave you in the hands of our sommelier, who will guide you in —"
"That won't be necessary," Benjamin interrupted. He ordered a Frédéric Mallo grand cru Rosacker vieilles vignes. "A two thousand five, if you please."
"Very good, sir."
"And water for you, Virgile? You must be very thirsty, even penitential, after your lengthy conversation in the confessional today."
"Don't blame me, boss. If you remember, I answered the call. I wasn't making it. Before I left Bordeaux, I met this German chick who was harvesting grapes in Beauséjour Bécot. I was just helping her out, and now she won't stop calling."
"Right. You were just helping her out. Whatever you say."
"She's a real babe, but —"
"How you talk about women, boy. You met some chick who's a babe? Come now, Virgile. You have a refined palate, and you love wines with great subtlety, and yet you talk like a stable boy who tumbles in the hay with anything in a skirt."
"Boss! You don't give me enough credit."
"Well, then, prove me wrong."
As the winemaker and his assistant waited for their dishes to arrive, the pale yellow riesling with green reflections was awakening their senses. Benjamin changed the subject and started describing the wine's aromas of flowers and spices. Virgile, for his part, commented on the peppery notes coming through in the finish.
"Here we have the typical features of Rosacker," the winemaker said, chewing his riesling with satisfaction. "This wine comes from heavy clay soil with limestone and dolomite pebbles."
"Lots of minerality," the sommelier pointed out.
Benjamin sniffed the fragrances emanating from his glass, aware that the sommelier was watching him intently.
"I'd say lime, boss. Maybe a hint of tangerine."
"Yes, complex citrus aromas. It's very elegant, practically ethereal. Did you know the name Rosacker comes from the wild roses that used to grow around the vineyards?"
Finally, the sommelier ventured, "At the risk of being mistaken, aren't you Benjamin Cooker?"
The winemaker simply smiled, and with a nod, Virgile confirmed what the young man was thinking.
"We are very honored that you have chosen the Kammerzell House during your stay in Alsace, Mr. Cooker."
"I trust we will enjoy ourselves here," Benjamin said, taking a sip.
At that moment, a beam of light ran through his riesling, accentuating the golden color. Late autumn promised to be flamboyant in this land of Alsace, where the grape harvest sometimes extended all the way to Christmas. Too bad Strasbourg was only a stopover. His thoughts flashed back to the tour guide, Jeanne, so vibrant one minute and dead the next.
"You seem lost in thought," Virgile said. "Are you thinking about that woman who died in the cathedral?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact, I am. Doesn't it strike you as strange, Virgile, to die in a place like that — a cathedral? And the woman was so well informed. It's a shame she couldn't live longer to share her knowledge with more people."
"Educated or illiterate — it's all the same. As my grandfather used to say, no matter how brilliant you are, you can't outsmart death. It must have been her time, boss. And maybe it was fitting that she died in the cathedral that was so much a part of her life."
"Your grandfather — I'm sorry I didn't have the opportunity to meet him before he passed away."
"You would have liked him. I'm glad he was with us for so long and was spry enough to avoid going into a retirement home. He wouldn't set a foot in a church either. He was stubborn, and he insisted on doing things his own way. I think he just willed himself to live longer than most people."
"'A life well spent brings happy death.'"
Excerpted from Late Harvest Havoc by Jean-Pierre Alaux, Noël Balen, Sally Pane. Copyright © 2015 Sally Pane. Excerpted by permission of Le French Book.
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
Title: Late Harvest Havoc - The Winemaker Detective Mystery 10 Author: Jean-Pierre Alaux & Noel Balen Published: 12-15-15 Publisher: Le French Book Pages: 114 Genre: Mystery, Thrillers & Suspense Sub Genre: International Mystery & Crime; Amateur Sleuth ISBN: 9781939474599 ASIN: B018GX1ALK Reviewer: DelAnne Reviewed For: NetGalley My Rating: 4 1/2 Stars . Someone is sabotaging the vines on the vineyards in Alsace. Unfortunately Benjamin Cooker and Virgile Lassien are found at more than one of the locations of vandalism. Not to mention his vintage Mercedes is wrecked when they our touring the region to research for Cooker's Guide Book. The two men are in drawn into the center of old rivalries, vendettas and mystery. Unless they can find out who is behind everything they may end up serving the time. As always Alaux and Balen have provided a novella filled with action, suspense and mystery in which the wine detective must take time from his beloved wines and culinary delights to assist locals in a crime investigation. The difference in this one is that Cooker and Lassien have become suspect themselves and encountered the wrath of the locals that believe they are responsible for everything that has happened recently. Although short the drama of the story is as good as any full length novel. On the plus side is also that Late Harvest Havoc can easily be read in one sitting and as a stand-alone. I do recommend you read the others in the series to see how the two became acquainted and their relationship developed as the series progressed. I have been reading them all over the last month and I have one more, book 11, Tainted Tokay. I hope that Le French book has plans to translate the other 11 books as well. I think I should enjoy seeing the television series to see how the books and visual compare. My rating for Late Harvest Havoc is 4 1/2 out of 5 stars.
I received a complimentary copy of this book as a part of a book tour for a fair and honest review and rated it 4 out of 5 Stars. A lover of good food and sweet wine, I was more than happy to get a chance to read and review Late Harvest Havoc, the tenth (10th) book in The Winemaker Detective series by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noel Balen. Set in Alsace, the northeastern French region of the Rhine River, wine experts and amateur detectives Benjamin Cooker and his assistant Virgile find themselves embroiled in solving another murder and dealing with suspicious wine growers all while traveling back and forth between Germany and France. Filled with the history of the region, colorful descriptions of the region’s food and local people, Late Harvest Havoc is a fine addition to an already established series. Deciding to introduce his assistant/apprentice to the Northeast countryside of France and its regional wines, Benjamin Cooker and Virgile Lanssien head to the Alsace region in Benjamin’s vintage Mercedes with plans to eat, drink and conduct more research for the “Cooker” guidebook. They didn’t plan one of the local guides dropping dead during a historical chapel tour or on becoming suspects in a local police investigation of “vine vandalism”. A suspicion Benjamin doesn’t take well, especially since his beloved car is also vandalized. Already a fan of this series, I could not wait to see what Mr. Alaux and Mr. Balen had in store for Benjamin and Virgile in this installment and I was not disappointed. As this series continues to progress, Benjamin and Virgile become more like a father and son; they understand each other’s mood swings and truly care for one another. Their dialogue is witty, occasionally sarcastic and they have a lot of fun traveling the countryside tasting wine. Especially since it is often accompanied by great food. While they can’t seem to help getting involved in solving murders, murder literally seems to follow them around, they enjoy the challenge solving a crime gives them and Benjamin is becoming quite proud of how much better they are at it than some of the local police. The authors do a wonderful job educating the reader about the Alsace region while solving a mystery. A region steeped in both French and German history, Alsace is clearly filled with natural beauty, great wines and good food. I personally have always wanted to visit this region of France because of how it has gone back and forth between France and Germany since the end of the Roman Empire. The two mysteries (the murder and the vandalism) are well written and there are plenty of twists and turns to keep the reader entertained and guessing. I especially enjoyed reading the back and forth between Benjamin and Virgile when they were both tired and a little stressed out. Will Benjamin and Virgile discover who is behind the “vine vandalism” in the region? Will Benjamin’s beloved car suffer as a result of Benjamin’s investigation? And will they discover who killed the chapel tour guide and why she had to die? You’ll have to read Late Harvest Havoc to find out. I enjoyed it and look forward to reading more books in this series.
Rife with puns and turns of phrase, the latest Winemaker Detective book highlights the banter between Benjamin and Virgile, allowing us a deeper look into their personalities and partnership. Several times the characters almost break the fourth wall – you expect them to turn and wink at the reader at any moment! It is a book that is very aware of itself, even going so far as to self-reference its own title! You can tell the authors were having a lot of fun writing this one. In addition to the self-aware aspect of the writing, the style from chapter to chapter matches Benjamin’s mood and circumstances, keeping the reader immersed, and feeling the events with him. As always, the story is experienced most through the senses, with the flavor and smell descriptions even more vibrant than before. Indeed, I recommend more than ever having something to eat before reading, as your stomach will yearn for the delicious dishes, and your palate will crave the riotous flavors of the wine, throughout all the meals featured. This work however, also provides a great visual stimulation for the reader as well. The detailed description of the astronomical clock and the cathedral were so beautiful and moving, that I looked them up after reading, putting them on my bucket list to visit someday. I love the way the authors take the time, through Benjamin’s hobby of giving Virgile a little history lesson here and there, to explain side details to the reader. It adds a great layer of communication between author and reader, beyond the story. For example, the lesson on toasting history was very neat, as it puts many other works in a new light, allowing me to deepen my reading of them. The conclusion wraps up all the loose ends, and the culprit and motive are hidden until the reveal, keeping the reader turning the page in anticipation. A satisfying read! I received a review copy of this work from the publisher through NetGalley
I loved all the books I have read in this series but it was my favorite. It was most adventurous, full of twists and suspense with some interesting historical references. In this new adventure Benjamin showed us around another beautiful French region, Alsace. I have been there a few years ago and I found it charming, a perfect mix of French and German culture. I liked so much to visit it again with the famous winemaker. Benjamin and his increasingly indispensable assistant Virgile are in Alsace for a tasting and find themselves involved in an unpleasant episode. In the picturesque town of Colmar a mysterious vandal destroyed some vines. This act is somehow connected to the Nazi occupation of the region? Virgile and her cantankerous boss will try to find the culprit. A plot well woven, a compelling mystery to solve, magnificent and vivid descriptions of landscapes, great tasting and wine recommendations and perfect culinary combinations: this book is a real treat, ideal for a pleasant winter evening. I can't wait to see where Benjamin and Virgile bring us in their next adventure. I received an advance reader edition of this book via NetGalley for the purpose of providing an honest review.
VERDICT: Appealing mystery for all your senses, with a strong sense of unity between plot and place. A very enjoyable way of discovering a unique region of France. It was delightful to follow the characters in that really neat area. First, take time to appreciate the ambiguous cover. What is really coming out of that tonneau? Know that the French title of the series translates literary as “the blood of the vine”. This is particularly relevant for this specific mystery, as you will see later. Wine connoisseur and detective Benjamin is to meet a businessman in Germany, so he decides to stop in Alsace on his way, with his assistant Virgile. As soon as they get there, Benjamin goes to visit the marvelous cathedral of Strasbourg, unique with its pink stone. There are a few unique pieces in it, and that’s how the mystery begins, with Benjamin admiring the Astronomical Clock as well as the nearby Pillar of Angels. The description and history are included in the narrative thanks to a local tourist guide Benjamin is listening to. But shortly after, Benjamin sees the guide fall to her death in a strange way. Who is she? Was it an accident or did someone kill her? As Benjamin and Virgile visit other quaint Alsace cities, Colmar being one of these beauties, they hear about another strange happening: vines are being cut down with a chainsaw! And they multiply all over the area. Imagine: a serial killer attacking not people but vineyards, with a powerful weapon, and with no apparent connection between the places attacked. To top it all, Benjamin discovers soon after that someone slashed the back tires of his car! What’s going on here? Alsace is very close to Germany. The border is the river Rhine itself. The two countries are so close there that the region has been back and forth French and German during different periods in history. It has a unique culture and even a unique local type of dialect. France-Germany, that sends us back for instance to World War Two. Could all these happenings be related to old revenge (the book opens precisely with a quotation by Balzac on revenge!), about dealings during WWII? about the Resistance? And how are these connected with the death of the tourist guide? Grudges can go on for generations, and resentment is not uncommon in rural areas. The relationship between Benjamin and his young assistant has evolved along the series. This time, Benjamin does not hesitate to go alone to his business meeting in Germany. He leaves Virgile by himself to do some precious groundwork to try to solve this mystery and prevent the killer from destroying more vineyards.
As you know I have been enjoying this series more and more with each book that is added to it. I have to say them one may have been my favorite or at least it is right up there at the top. As always we learn about wines as we read as well as we get to learn about a new part of the world in this book. I love the descriptions of the setting as it makes me feel as if I am right there along with the characters in the story. This book in particular I think was full of even more adventure and drama. I love how Benjamin and Virgile play off of each other in these books. It helps make for a good story line by having the characters so well developed. I can't wait to see what these authors have to offer us in the next book.