Provençal Mystery Series #4
Watch the series! Murder in Provence is now on Britbox.
On-again couple Antoine Verlaque and Marine Bonnet are hoping for a relaxing holiday at the Locanda Sordou, but someone has other plans.
Hoteliers Maxime and Catherine Le Bon have spent their life savings restoring the hotel, which lies in an archipelago of sun-soaked islands off the coast of Marseille. To celebrate the grand opening, a group of privileged guests joins Verlaque and Bonnet: Marine’s free-spirited best friend; an aging film star, his much-younger wife, and her disgruntled son; a pair of affable American tourists; and a querelous Parisian couple. But the murder of one of the guests casts a shadow over everyone’s vacation, and things go from bad to worse when a violent storm cuts off all communication with the mainland. Will the killer strike again?
Like Donna Leon and Andrea Camilleri, M. L. Longworth enchants mystery lovers with a taste for good food and gorgeous landscapes in this installment of her acclaimed mystery series.
“A charming read with a well-crafted mystery and characters as rich and full-bodied as a Bordeaux.” —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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From here he could see La Canebière rolling straight down into the old port, splitting the downtown into two equal parts, as though someone had drawn a line in the sand with a stick. It made sense that the main street would dump into water, for it had once been La Lacydon, a river. Eric Monnier tried to balance his hip against the handrails of the boat in order to relight what was left of his cigar. He noticed that the farther out from Marseille they got, the more the mountains behind the city seemed bigger, as if they were pushing—thrusting—the city into the sea. Funny, he thought, when you’re in the city you don’t notice the white chalky limestone hills. You only hear the beeping car horns, the cry of seagulls, and see the dust, and smell the sea, and dirt. He knew that Marseille made no attempt to fancy itself up for tourists, and each time he returned to the place where he was born it took him a few days to learn to love it again.
Lacydon had been his first and only book of poetry, written in the early 1960s when he was twenty-two and published on a shoestring by a friend in Arles. It was an ode to Marseille, and its history, its bright light, and its fast-talking inhabitants. He had sold a dozen or so copies at weekend flea markets and then had given out the rest to friends and family. He still had a cardboard box under his bed with the proofs—typed by the older sister of a friend—and five remaining copies of the slim, elegant tome.
With the nonsuccess of his poetry Monnier took a job at a high school in Aix-en-Provence teaching French literature, just until, he initially hoped, his poetry took off. An elderly great-aunt on his father’s side died and gave the apartment in Aix’s Quartier Mazarin to her great-nephew. He still lived there, surrounded by wealth: his neighbors being a count and countess (below) and a Parisian architect (above). And here he was, one month newly retired from that same job and same high school, never having put his poems into book form again. His new poems were now written out, in longhand, in black bound books that he bought at Michel’s on the Cours Mirabeau. He knew that the staff at Michel’s called him “Le Poète” as soon as he left the shop, and he didn’t mind.
Monnier’s eyes watered as he looked at Marseille. He had always loved the port, its golden stone medieval forts protecting the harbor, and the fortress-like church, Saint-Victor, lovelier in its simplicity than the elaborate nineteenth-century Notre Dame de la Garde. He turned to his right and saw the bunkers, built by Germans during World War II, on the hill below the Pharo Palace. As kids they had played around the bunkers, until getting chased away by a Pharo guard. As the boat went farther out on the sea more of Marseille came into view: the private swimming club just beyond the bunkers, where now membership took years and multiple recommendations, and beyond that the three-star Passédat restaurant.
He turned his back to Marseille now; not because he was displeased with the city, but to break the wind. On the third try his cigar relit—barely visible hints of red shone at the tips—and he puffed madly to get it going again. With his back to the city he saw that they were close to Les Îles du Frioul, a group of islands that included the abandoned prison on the Île d’If, immortalized by Alexandre Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo. Two of the larger islands of the Frioul archipelago were joined by a causeway, with a large natural port that faced Marseille. They too had limestone cliffs and craggy hills, dotted with bright-green shrubs, all of it shimmering in the late July sun against the blue-green sea. When he was young an uncle (his mother, daughter of Italian immigrants, had been one of twelve children; his father, an only child) had had a cabin on Frioul, and Eric would spend weeks on end swimming and fishing with his cousins, and when alone, writing.
Farther out to sea the waves got bigger and the boat hit one and fell down with a thud. The poet heard a cry and what sounded like “Whoopee!” from a middle-aged couple who had boarded the boat just ahead of him. It was the wife who had yelped. She had her back to the city, arms spread out firmly gripping the boat’s railing, as her husband comically jutted around trying to stabilize himself so that he could take a picture. He wore white tennis shoes that seemed too big for his feet, and one of those hats that had a bill to keep out the sun but a hole on top. They never made sense to Monnier. He had no idea what the caps were called, but on the basis of that—and the wife’s “Whoopee!”—he guessed the couple to be American. The woman saw Monnier looking at them and she smiled and waved, yelling, “Rough sea!” Monnier waved back with his panama hat in his hand, having understood that she had said something about the waves.
He tried not to stare, but the poet was mesmerized by the American couple’s glee, and their shared enthusiasm. He had had love affairs but never married; the woman whom he would have married had died more than fifty years ago, and he hadn’t enjoyed dating after that. He used his poetry as an excuse to be a recluse; people believed him, as the making of poetry was too abstract for his few friends to understand.
A week on the island was a treat to himself for forty years of teaching ungrateful seventeen-year-olds (with some exceptions) the beauty of Flaubert. As a retired civil servant he would be earning his full salary—small at 2,000 euros a month—but it was more than enough for someone who lived rent-free, had no children, and never traveled. As he smoked his cigar he saw himself reflected in the boat’s window: he imagined that he looked like any retired teacher who loved to eat and drink (this was something he spent money on); his half-moon-shaped reading glasses permanently hanging around his neck; his paunch; his white Guayabera shirts that a friend bought on visits to Cuba (this one stained, he noticed, with last night’s beef daube); his red bulbous nose; a scruffy white beard; and his flyaway white hair, thinning, but not bald.
The Americans were still giddy at the waves, and he was thankful that the language barrier would be an excuse not to have to socialize with them once they got to the island. Not very social at the best of times, Monnier wanted silence on the island; time to reflect, and to write. And then he heard French.
A new couple had emerged on his side of the boat; they must have been on the starboard side and boarded after him and the Americans. They were younger by five years than the Americans, and younger than him by . . . twenty years perhaps. At least she was. He nodded as they walked by, their arms linked, and they smiled and nodded back. The woman was tall and slender, but not skinny, with a head full of curly auburn hair that flew about in the wind, just as Élodie’s had. She had a long thin nose, high cheekbones, and a thin mouth, and lots of freckles. Her partner was equally striking, but did not have her classic good looks. He was her height, if not a tiny bit shorter, and wide at the shoulders, with a paunch that Monnier could just make out. His nose had been broken . . . an accident? a sporting injury? and his hair was thick and black and streaked with gray. His eyes were much darker than hers, but they were as intelligent. He had a large, wide mouth, and a hearty laugh.
Monnier’s cigar went out again and he turned back to look toward Marseille. The city’s details were now difficult to make out, except for Notre Dame de la Garde sitting atop a hill east of the city, much like Paris’s Sacré Coeur—a beacon—in this church’s case, for sailors. The boat had made its way around the Frioul islands and was now heading out farther to sea, southwest, to an island seven hundred meters wide and two kilometers long that was their destination.
“Is that a Cuban you’re smoking?” a deep voice said beside him. It was Broken Nose, the one with the beautiful freckled companion.
“What else?” Monnier answered. He may be just a humble civil servant, but he would only smoke Cubans. “An Upmann. But it’s out now, and I’m holding on to it still because I don’t want to throw it overboard.”
“I have an Upmann in my pocket,” the man answered, patting what looked to be, to Monnier’s inexperienced eye, an expensive linen jacket. “A Magnum forty-six. But I’m saving it for when we get to the island. My companion thought it silly that I smoke a cigar while on a boat, out at sea. I think she thinks the idea of a cigar and fresh air is incongruous.”
Monnier laughed. “Tell that to the Cubans.” He held out his hand. What the hell,he thought. They speak French and we’ll be together on a small island. “Eric Monnier,” he said.
“Antoine Verlaque,” Broken Nose said, shaking his hand. He looked at Monnier and smiled again. “Here for some R & R?”
“I hope so,” Monnier said. “Just retired from forty years of teaching. And you?”
“Have you brought more cigars with you?” Monnier asked. “I’m not sure the hotel will sell them.”
Verlaque nodded and smiled. He was charmed by the teacher’s naivety; hotels such as the one they were heading to always had a humidor. He had brought his own cigars, but knew he would be able to fall back on the hotel’s stock if he fell short. “They’re filling up about half of my suitcase,” Verlaque answered. “She doesn’t know.” At that point they both looked across the boat to Verlaque’s companion, who was taking photographs of the sea.
“She’s beautiful,” Monnier said, surprising himself that he would be so forthright.
“Yes, and she carries it so well. Some women are ruined by their beauty, but not Marine.”
Monnier thought that this man Antoine was used to getting compliments on the beauty of his girlfriend, or wife; at least, he hadn’t been at all surprised by a stranger’s comment. “Marine,” Monnier repeated. “Appropriate name for someone who takes pictures of waves.”
Verlaque nodded. “It is, but I think she’s taking photos of waves because she’s actually frightened of them.”
Monnier did a half smile. “I knew someone like your Marine once. Wonderful girl . . .”
The boat hit a wave, and both men grabbed on to the edge. “I’ve never been beyond Frioul before,” Verlaque said. “It’s magnificent to be out on the sea like this, with Marseille off in the distance.”
“We’ll be going out eight kilometers,” Monnier answered. “Sordou was the first island that Mediterranean mariners came to; hence the importance of its lighthouse. The other islands in the Riou archipelago are uninhabited . . .”
“Yes, I know . . .”
“Protected by the coast guard and used only by scientists and divers and seagulls . . .”
Verlaque waited for Monnier to take a pause, as he was obviously in teacher mode, but didn’t get a chance to speak. “Neolithic peoples came to Sordou looking for shellfish,” Monnier went on.
“Mmm,” Verlaque said. “We’ll no doubt get some good fish on the island. I’ve heard great things about this young chef . . .”
“Of course there are plenty of rabbits, and some rare birds like the protected Puffin cendré . . .”
“Of course, with its bright-yellow beak and ashy-colored feathers . . .”
“But the puffins hide out in the island’s rocky crevices, so it’s unlikely that we’ll see one.”
The boat slowed down and Marseille was but a golden haze in the distance.
“Well, here we are!” Monnier said, shielding the sun from his eyes with his hat.
Now that the boat had pulled up to the island’s dock, the passengers could feel the July heat. The American woman reminded her husband, Bill, as they excitedly ran inside the boat to get their suitcases, to be careful of his back.
“Ah . . . Sordou,” Monnier said, looking at the island.
“Have you been here before?” Verlaque asked. “As I understand it, Sordou has been abandoned for decades.”
“Oh, I’ve been here before, mon ami, I’ve been here before.”
“Watch your step,” the captain said to the passengers as they got off his boat—Le Sunrise—and hopped on to Sordou’s main pier. The captain was anxious to get back to Marseille, as the sea was getting rough, and by the time he got back his friends would be well into their second pastis at the Bar de la Marine.
A handsome, rugged-looking man in his thirties was there to greet the guests and help them with their bags. Hugo Sammut was glad to have the job; he worked during the winters in the Alps as a ski instructor but had needed to earn some cash this summer season. He was hired on as gardener and boatman—he had his blue boat badge in sailing and could take the guests out in the hotel’s small motorboat if they desired. It was no surprise to him that he would also get asked to do odd jobs such as greeting the guests at the pier; at their first staff meeting in early May he had been shocked that the staff consisted of only six people, plus the hotel’s owner and his wife.
“Tenez, madame,” Sammut said as he offered his forearm to a middle-aged woman getting off the boat.
“Oh, don’t mind if I do!” she answered in English, giggling and taking his tanned muscled arm.
“Shirley!” her husband called out from behind. “You’ll want to watch out with these Frenchies!”
She patted Sammut’s arm as thanks once she had both feet on solid ground and reached for her husband’s suitcase as he almost lost his balance getting off the boat. “Bad back,” she loudly said to Sammut, pointing to her husband and then motioning to her lower back with her hand. “And Parkinson’s too,” she added. Eric Monnier cringed; the woman’s openness about her husband’s various ailments embarrassed him.
“In that case, madame, please allow me to take your suitcases up to the hotel for you,” Sammut said in perfect but accented English. He was extremely popular in the mountains with the Anglo-Saxon—women, in particular—skiers.
“Oh my, thank you . . .”
“Hugo,” he answered.
“Hugo, dear. I’m Shirley Hobbs, and this is my husband, Bill.”
“Glad to meet you, son,” Bill Hobbs said, shaking Sammut’s hand. Monnier looked on in amazement at the American couple’s friendliness and noted that the man’s hand trembled as he shook hands. Monnier had never been to “the States” as some of his ex-colleagues had annoyingly referred to it.
“Hugo, are you sure you can handle both of those bags?” Bill Hobbs asked. “I’m afraid I can’t be of much help.”
“Yes, sir. It won’t be a problem,” Sammut answered, and to his relief saw Serge Canzano, the hotel’s bartender, walking quickly down toward the dock.
“I’ll help you with your bags, sir,” Canzano said to Monnier as Sammut gave his colleague a where have you been? look. Canzano didn’t have the chance to tell Sammut that he had been busy making a second mojito for one of the guests when the boat had pulled in. He had finished making the drink and called Marie-Thérèse—who had been busy in the laundry room—to tend bar until he returned.
“And then I’ll be back for your bags,” Sammut said to Antoine Verlaque and Marine Bonnet.
“Oh, no no,” they protested in unison. “That won’t be necessary,” Verlaque said. “We can manage.”
“I’ll take your bags,” a throaty female voice sounded. The group turned around to see a petite, short-haired woman in her late twenties as she bounded down the pier and took Marine’s suitcase from her. “Welcome to Locanda Sordou,” she said. “I’m Niki Darcette, the hotel manager.”
Marine looked at Niki Darcette’s thin tanned arms and legs and estimated that she was a size 0. Darcette wore a sheer white cotton blouse with short sleeves and a red miniskirt with high-heeled sandals.
“Mme and M. Le Bon, the hotel owners, will be meeting you in the hotel lobby,” Darcette continued. “A few of the guests have already arrived, two more are coming on a later boat this evening, and then we’ll be uninterrupted for a blissful week.”
It sounded to Marine like Darcette had rehearsed the greeting; the addition of “blissful” was a little too much. But she liked her low, raspy voice, even if it was probably due to too much smoking.
“M. Verlaque,” Darcette said, walking beside Verlaque. “I hope you had a pleasant boat ride.”
“Very pleasant, thank you,” Antoine said, turning around and smiling at Marine.
Marine was relieved that Mlle Darcette hadn’t said “judge”; she had insisted that Antoine’s profession—he was Aix-en-Provence’s examining magistrate—remain hidden that week. This was to be a no-work holiday; neither of them would be giving out free legal advice. She had finished her term from teaching law in late May but since then had been busy researching and writing.
“Wow. Wow wow wow,” Shirley Hobbs said, adding a whistle, when she looked around her.
“Shirley, that’s four ‘wows,’” Bill Hobbs told his wife. Steep white cliffs surrounded the island’s harbor; the cliffs were dotted with green shrubs, and in some places small hearty umbrella pines grew out of rock. The cliffs dropped sharply off into the blue-green sea, like the calanques the Hobbses had seen in Cassis on their previous vacation to this part of Provence. It had been that pleasure-boat ride five years ago—three calanques for 15 euros Bill remembered—that had persuaded them to book this luxurious week on Sordou. “It’s just like a place in those decoration magazines you’re always reading, isn’t it, Shirley?” Bill asked, taking his wife’s arm.
“Design magazines, not decoration, Bill,” his wife replied.
The guests gazed up at the hotel; it was a light-pink adobe building sitting on a slight rise, overlooking the sea. It curved along a hill and rose up in blocks, working to fit into the hilly landscape instead of imposing itself on it. A series of curved balconies and terraces lined the hotel’s front, some grand with sweeping views, and others small and intimate. This side of the island faced south; the view was, except for the white cliffs at either side, of the sea. The guests seemed to all turn around at once to look at the view once they were on the top step leading to the hotel’s front door.
“Sea, and only sea, all the way to Africa,” Hugo Sammut told the guests. He had been on the island for two months and was still mesmerized by the view.
“Messieurs-dames,” a voice called out. Maxime Le Bon was standing in the arched doorway of the hotel, holding open the double glass doors. “Bienvenus,” he continued. “Welcome,” he said to the Hobbses, guessing, because of Bill Hobbs’s visor, who they were. Le Bon wore what was required in the July heat—linen pants and a short-sleeved white shirt. He was trim, and tanned (like the rest of the staff), and he seemed, thought Marine Bonnet, to be genuinely excited by the arrival of his guests. “My wife, Catherine—we all call her Cat-Cat—is inside. Please . . .”
Le Bon and Sammut held the giant glass doors open, and the guests passed into the hotel’s lobby.
“No more wows, Shirley,” Bill Hobbs said as he looked around the spacious cathedral-ceilinged lobby. The walls were painted a warm cream, and the accents—window frames and light fixtures—were black. To the right of the front door was an arched alcove—Marine thought it might have been a chapel at one time—where there was a curved wooden reception desk. An elegant middle-aged woman quickly came out from behind the desk and welcomed the guests.
“Bonjour,” she said, smiling. “I’m Catherine Le Bon. Please call me Cat-Cat. Your suitcases will be taken to your rooms while Mlle Darcette and I check you in. While we’re doing that, you’re all invited to pass through the lobby into the bar . . . the Jacky Bar we call it, in honor of one of Sordou’s bartenders from the 1950s . . . and have a complimentary glass of champagne.”
Eric Monnier saluted Mme Le Bon and made straight for the bar, saying, “I’ll check in last. You folks go first,” as he walked out of the lobby.
“Well, we are very tired,” Shirley Hobbs said after Niki Darcette had translated Cat-Cat’s welcome. “I’d love to see our room and put my feet up.”
“Of course, Mme Hobbs,” Maxime Le Bon replied. He gestured toward the reception desk. “Please . . .”
Verlaque looked at Marine and said, “I’ll check us in if you want to go to the bar.”
“I don’t mind waiting with you,” Marine answered.
“Don’t you want to find Sylvie?” Verlaque asked. He secretly wanted to check in without Marine knowing that he was going to try to upgrade their room.
“You’re right,” Marine said. “And the bar is a good place to start.”
“Putain de merde!” a teenage male said as he passed between Marine and Verlaque, causing them both to step back.
“Excuse us!” Marine said, visibly annoyed.
The boy turned around and quickly said, “Sorry,” before throwing open the front doors and running out of the hotel.
“Brice!” a woman called, walking quickly into the lobby.
“He went that way,” Verlaque said, pointing outside.
“Merci, monsieur,” the woman said. “Teenagers!” the woman said to Verlaque, flashing him a smile, as she walked out of the hotel.
“M. Verlaque,” Maxime Le Bon said. “We’re ready to check you in.”
“See you in a bit,” Marine said. “You know where to find me.”
• • •
If the hotel’s lobby was elegant Tuscan in decoration, the bar was riotous Capri, circa 1962. Marine stood in the doorway with her hands on her hips and looked around the bar, smiling. Hugo Sammut approached her with a glass of champagne. “Thank you,” Marine said. “This is a beautiful bar.”
Sammut looked around as if he hadn’t noticed the bar before, and shrugged before walking off.
“Hey!” Sylvie Grassi called from the end of the curved, white bar accented with large black polka dots. “Finally!”
Marine quickly walked over to her best friend, gave her the bise, and hugged her. “I’m so glad we’re here!”
Sylvie held up her mojito and clinked glasses with Marine’s champagne flute. “To summer vacation,” she said.
“Chin-chin,” Marine replied, sipping her bone-dry champagne.
“Sit down ’cause you’re gonna fall over when I tell you who’s here,” Sylvie said, slightly slurring her words.
Marine laughed. “Is that your first mojito?”
Sylvie shook her head back and forth. “My second, and then I’m going to take an afternoon nap. I haven’t had a nap since Charlotte was born.”
“How is she?” Marine asked of her ten-year-old goddaughter.
“We spoke yesterday, just before I got here. . . . There’s no cell phone reception here, by the way,” Sylvie said. “She’d been on a two-hour walk through Alpine meadows with my parents, and later they were going to buy cream at Charlotte’s favorite farm.”
Marine sighed. “That’s idyllic.”
“Mmmm, and so are these mojitos, and this hotel! Isn’t this bar too much?”
Marine looked around at the aqua-blue and green curved sofas that lined the walls, bright-yellow armchairs, glass-topped bronze tables, and white wooden venetian blinds that held the sun at bay. Ceiling fans slowly turned above their heads, giving the bar a tropical feel. She saw Eric Monnier, whom Verlaque had told her was a retired teacher, sitting alone at a round marble table under a massive black-and-white framed photograph of a Cuban farmer. He was writing in a notebook and had seemed to already have finished his champagne as there was now a glass of what looked like whiskey beside him.
“Marine,” Sylvie said.
“Oh, sorry,” Marine said. “What?”
“I have to tell you who is here, as a guest.”
“Right. Who, then?”
“Please show some enthusiasm!”
Marine laughed and sipped some champagne. “Sorry, judging from your voice it must be a movie star, and you know I don’t know much about cinema. I can’t remember the last time I went to the movies. Stars to me just seem like moderately talented people who won the beauty lottery at birth—and who have little up here . . .” she said, pointing to her head.
“Those are Hollywood stars. This person you would not have recently seen in a movie, chérie.”
“Their career is over?” Marine asked.
Sylvie frowned. “He does commercials now. I heard he was trouble on the film sets. You still haven’t guessed who . . .”
“Hey, you two,” Verlaque said, leaning down to give Sylvie the bise. “Don’t get up,” he said.
“I can’t,” Sylvie answered.
Verlaque laughed loudly and Marine beamed, pleased that her two favorite people might actually get along this week.
“I was just telling Marine that we have a French film star among us on Sordou,” Sylvie said, loudly finishing her mojito.
Verlaque raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
“And, there’s fireworks between him and his wife—whose face has been lifted about a million times—and her surly teenage son.”
“We saw them in the lobby!” Marine said, more interested in the boy’s angst than the movie star’s wife.
“M. Verlaque, you’ll be needing some nice cool champagne,” Niki Darcette said as she handed Verlaque a coupe.
Sylvie Grassi looked at Marine and Marine whispered, “I swear she’s flirting with him!”
“Pardon?” Verlaque said.
Marine made sure that Niki was out of earshot and repeated what she had said to Sylvie.
Verlaque laughed. “That’s crazy.”
“No, it’s Sordou,” Sylvie said. Verlaque and Marine looked at Sylvie, who herself was a young-looking forty-year-old who kept her petite frame trim, much like, Verlaque thought to himself, Mlle Darcette. “The guys on staff here are all making eyes at me. I think it’s partly due to the beauty of this island, the warm sun on your skin, and how great the saltwater makes you feel once you’ve been swimming.”
Marine laughed. “And the fact that they can’t get off the island unless a boat shows up probably helps too,” she said.
Sylvie frowned but then whispered excitedly, “Don’t look now, but just behind you . . .”
Marine and Verlaque instinctively turned around to look.
Sylvie groaned and hid her face in her empty mojito glass.
“Alain Denis!” Verlaque whispered.
“He’s the only film star that I think my mother can name,” Marine said in a low voice. “She loved him in that sixties movie he did in Venice . . .”
“Acqua alta,” Sylvie supplied.
“My mother loved him too,” Verlaque said, making no bones about the fact that he was openly staring at the actor, who was at the far end of the bar ordering a drink. “The Red Night was her favorite, if I remember correctly.”
“Mine was The Longest Road Home, without a doubt,” Sylvie said. “That great scene, shot in black-and-white, where the screen is split in two by a wooden post, and he’s on the left of it, alone, but you can hear her voice, off screen, and she’s crying . . .”
“Ah yes, Isabella Piccolini,” Verlaque quickly said, smiling. “Now, she was my father’s favorite screen star.”
Marine tried to be discreet as she looked at the actor; he did look a bit like his younger self: he still kept his fine straight hair slightly long, but it was now mostly gray. His long aquiline nose and full, almost girlish lips were still very striking, as were his high cheekbones. But his skin was wrinkle-free, which Marine thought was odd for someone who must be in his late sixties, like her parents. “What happened to his career, anyway?” she asked.
Sylvie leaned forward. “It began with film-set problems between Denis and Isabella Piccolini,” she said, whispering and playing with her empty mojito glass, toying with the idea of having a third. Sylvie read Paris Match whenever she could; she was too proud to buy it, so picked up used copies when she saw them at the dentist’s or doctor’s office, or at her sister’s. “Not only was he lazy—he had problems remembering his lines.” Sylvie then touched the side of her nose and made a snorting noise. “But he used to sexually harass the female costars, including Piccolini, who was a happily married nice Italian girl with four children, Daniella, Dario, Davide . . . um, I can’t remember the last one . . .”
“Go on,” Verlaque said.
“He began making too many demands during filming, asking for more and more money, much of which was going straight to his coke dealer.”
“What do you think he’s doing here?” Marine asked.
“On vacation,” Sylvie answered.
“I think Marine means here, on Sordou, and not in Saint-Tropez or Ibiza,” Verlaque suggested.
“Good question,” Sylvie said. “Maybe he wanted to be out of the limelight?”
“I thought movie stars craved that,” Marine said.
Sylvie leaned back on her bar stool and gave Alain Denis a sideways glance. “He certainly looks like the type who would be happy with cameras flashing in his face,” she said. “Especially since he’s been reduced to making dog-food commercials. But who knows?”
Marine and Antoine looked at Sylvie, surprised that she would end their discussion of Alain Denis on a pseudo-philosophical note.
“Should I have another mojito or a nap?” Sylvie asked.
“A nap,” Marine and Antoine said in unison.
Circles had been one of the decorative themes of the original Jacky Bar, and during the last two years of painstaking renovations Émile Villey had convinced the Le Bons to keep that iconoclastic 1960s shape. There were circles on the side of the long, curving, white bar, made from wood and painted black; discreet circles on the woolen and silk area rugs; and round bronze mirrors and picture frames adorned the walls. Villey believed that circles were relaxing; just the thing needed in a seaside hotel. But they also served as his window onto the bar, and its adjoining restaurant, as four of the bronze spheres had been turned into two-way mirrors, allowing the chef to observe his clients, and staff, from the kitchen.
Émile Villey, a young chef at twenty-five years of age, was lucky, and he knew it. Running his own restaurant, even though it was small, was a dream job. Maxime and Cat-Cat Le Bon treated him as an equal—even consulting him during the kitchen and restaurant renovations—and gave Émile full control of the menu and the kitchen. He had fallen in love with the island the first time he saw it—he had been born and raised in landlocked Berry, in the middle of France, and had done his training, which began at the age of fifteen, in similar landlocked restaurants from Picardie to Paris. During his interview, while on a rare weekend off from his job at Le Meurice in Paris, Émile had cooked for the Le Bons, using plants he had foraged on Sordou’s rocky cliffs—rosemary, thyme, lavender, and wild arugula—and he had hired the island’s only full-time inhabitant, Prosper Buffa (paying him too much), to catch some fish to grill. The meal had been simple, but fresh, and the Le Bons had been wildly enthusiastic. They told Villey he would be welcome to arrive early that spring, to get the kitchen ready, and experiment with menus on the staff, until the first guests would arrive in July. Émile Villey and Maxime Le Bon had finished the evening of his interview drinking twenty-year-old Armagnac and dreaming of Michelin stars.
It was only after Villey had signed a three-year contract with the Le Bons that news was passed down to him via the extensive and rapid French chefs’ network: the Le Bons had been so enthusiastic because Villey had been the only applicant. After a few more visits to the island, Villey figured out why he had been the only one to apply for the job: given the remoteness of the island it would be almost impossible to produce a varied menu. There would be no exotic ingredients; even the basics would have to be delivered by boat from Marseille. And Marseille was still rough-and-tumble Marseille; it would never be, even with investments like the ones the Le Bons had made, Saint-Tropez, Capri, or even Aix-en-Provence. Apprehensive, the young chef had been ready to break his contract, disappearing into some restaurant in New York, or Italy, until he went back to the island in August for yet another meeting with the Le Bons, who were virtually camping out, overseeing the hotel’s renovations. After their brainstorming session, Villey went swimming along the cliffs and, floating weightlessly on his back, looked at the blue sky above. There was silence all around him, except for the splashing noise he made with his hands, and the far-off noise of the cigales who hung out in Sordou’s few trees. Putting his goggles on—a gift from his parents, who themselves had only once been to the sea—he swam along the underwater cliffs and marveled at the sea life, each tiny colorful fish swimming in the same direction as he did, each one living in a group, but alone at the same time.
As Villey heaved himself up onto a flat rock and dried off in the sun, he reminded himself of his apprenticeship years: the rude awakenings at 6 a.m. in freezing-cold Berry, when it was still dark out and frost covered the ground and every other surface; working solidly in a large restaurant kitchen, long after midnight, six days a week, until his hands ached and were covered in cuts and sores. Saturday night was the apprentices’ only solace, which they shared with the nursing students at the opposite end of town, drinking beers and playing foosball. He soon became a saucier, then rose to the post as sous-chef for a manic-depressive two-starred chef near Lille who thought it funny to play practical jokes on his kitchen staff in the middle of a busy Sunday lunch. And then came his coup: a position as the fish chef at Le Meurice in Paris, where working conditions, despite the glamorous hotel and three-starred restaurant, were no better than his first apprentisage at the Auberge des Oiseaux in Berry. At night he would fall into his small bed in a studio in the twentieth arrondissement, exhausted. And the studio, where his neighbors didn’t seem to work and listened to rap all day and night, cost him 850 euros a month; half of his salary.
Sordou would be his challenge, Émile decided as he toweled off that hot August day. Were there not other great restaurants in remote places? Iceland, for example? Or some South Seas islands? He almost ran back to the hotel, and sat down and drew up a plan, which included a kitchen garden and pots for herbs. If he planted in early spring of the opening season, then he could have Provençal summer vegetables to plan the menu around. If Villey would tend to the garden, the Le Bons promised they would set aside a plot of land. The architect even planned a six-foot-high stone wall that would protect le potager from the sea’s winds.
Villey continued to make notes on the train back to Paris that evening; he would buy fruit in season and preserve it, as his grandmother had done. He’d make liqueurs from thyme and lavender. Fish would feature highly on the menu; he’d arrange with local fishermen to stop by the island on their way back to Marseille: Prosper wasn’t reliable enough and made it clear that he hated the Le Bons’ presence on what he claimed was his island. Émile knew he’d have to get up at some godforsaken hour to meet the fishermen, but at least he wouldn’t be breaking the snow off of the inner windowpane as he had done in Le Berry. Buying meat would be difficult, but he’d arrange to have Provençal lamb delivered, or send Hugo Sammut out to pick it up. Pasta would be his saving grace; he loved making it, and everyone liked eating it. Le Bon also agreed to invest in an Italian meat-carving machine that cost the same price as a small Citroën or Renault, but it was the most beautiful machine Villey had ever seen; brilliant red, its chrome glistening. Its mechanics were as precise as a telescope’s, and with a gentle turning of its wheel, a leg of Bellota or Pata Negra ham from Andalusia could be carved down to one-tenth of a millimeter. Extra legs could be hung from the rafters in the kitchen, Villey thought, or even in the bar.
He looked out one of the hublots at the clients, drinking their celebratory glass of champagne, and he liked the look of them. This would be a good group to start off on; for the Le Bons had reported that they were a bit of everything: a rich film star, Parisians, an American couple, and some middle-class Aixois. Villey was especially intrigued by the mojito-drinking artist, or he thought she was an artist, with her punky clothes and multicolored bracelets up and down her thin but muscular arms. He liked her laugh and could hear her laughing with her friends—a man and a woman—who had just arrived. The movie star was there too, looking sullen, pretending to be busy with his iPhone even though there was no reception, and there was an unkempt elderly man sitting at a corner table busily writing in a notebook. A diary? Villey watched him carefully and decided that the stained Cuban shirt and shaggy beard might be a ruse and that he could be a restaurant critic. Or hotel critic. But so soon? He’d have Serge and Marie-Thérèse keep an eye on him.
Émile Villey had decided to be a professional cook when he was twelve. He had helped his mother and aunt cook and serve for a party—his grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary—and had rejoiced at the sounds of the happy diners while he worked away in the kitchen with a lazy, older cousin. Had he known just how difficult his years of training would be, he might have chosen a different field, but what were the choices for a nonbookish boy in the middle of France, whose father was a farmer? He had two older brothers who would split the family farm. The lazy cousin was now the worst electrician in France, and Émile was here, on a sun-soaked Mediterranean island, where the rich came to de-stress.
And this morning had been a blessing; after his daily swim he had walked around the south side of the island and up over a rocky hill, through a small pine forest, where he came across a small, wild orchard. Someone years ago—when the hotel had been at its climax, no doubt—had planted fruit trees. The trees were in terrible shape; as a farmer’s son he knew that. But two of them were still laden with apricots, although it was late in the season, and Émile took one off the tree and, splitting it apart, ate its warm, juicy, sweet fruit. He put as many in his backpack as he could and rushed back to tell Maxime Le Bon the good news. There was also a huge, umbrella-shaped fig tree, covered in hard little figs. They would be ripe in late summer. He had been making both apricot and fig tarts since he was an apprentice, using a deceptively simple shortbread crust that he laced with almond extract, an elixir unknown in France that an English sous-chef had once introduced him to. He carried the tiny glass bottles, as he did his knives, from kitchen to kitchen, and had friends who were going to London pick some up for him, along with sharp cheddar and oat cakes.
This week had also brought another gift, that of Isnard Guyon, a friendly fisherman from Pointe Rouge in Marseille, who had not only been bringing Émile excellent fish throughout the spring, but had recently offered to bring the chef meat and other products—at a small commission, naturally—via a cousin who was a butcher, known for his fresh lamb from the hills of Provence and the dairy products he ordered from a farm in the Alps. Guyon had delivered the first batch the previous morning, as promised, pulling up to Sordou’s dock at 5 a.m. Villey tasted some of the cream as soon as he got back to the kitchen; it was richer and thicker than any cream he had ever tasted.
Émile Villey turned away from watching the guests, put his thick, curly blond hair in a ponytail, adjusted his apron, and washed his hands. It was time to get to work on the evening’s menu: the guests could choose between cold zucchini soup with a dollop of Alpine crème fraîche, or a stacked vegetable terrine made with layers of phyllo dough and anchored down with a sprig of rosemary; for the main dish Isnard’s freshly caught sea bream braised in olive oil with cherry tomatoes, black olives, and artichokes, or lamb chops cooked over an open fire served with a wet polenta; and apricot tart for dessert, with the vanilla ice cream he had made before he went to bed. Villey had picked lavender and used it to make cookies, which he planned on serving with a delicate sweet wine from Beaumes-de-Venise in the Luberon.
He didn’t mind not having kitchen help; the Le Bons had spared no cost in buying him the best appliances, and he had been taught to clean as he cooked. He almost preferred it that way, enjoying the silence and calm. If pressed, Serge had promised—or rather, Maxime had promised—Serge’s services in tidying up or helping chop vegetables. Marie-Thérèse had offered to help in the kitchen, and so far her enthusiasm outweighed her inexperience. Tonight would be their first dinner with clients, and Émile knew that how well it went off could predict the rest of the summer’s success, and even the future of Sordou.
Marine sat on their room’s private terrace, her bare feet resting on the wrought iron balcony. She wore a short, pink fitted cotton dress, and a large floppy beige sun hat trimmed in light blue. A cool wind was beginning to blow, and the sun would soon set, but she relished these few moments—outside, away from her computer and research. She looked out at the sparkling sea and wriggled her toes, which had just been subject to a poor pedicure. She inspected the spots where she had missed, and the red nail polish had leaked out onto her toes. She told herself that no one would notice, and if they did, they surely must be bored.
“Did you put sunscreen on your legs?” Antoine Verlaque asked as he came out on the terrace to join her.
Marine looked at her legs and then up at her boyfriend. “Not yet, but I will tomorrow, I promise,” she answered. “It’s just been so long since these white, freckled legs have seen any sun.” She turned her legs from right to left and frowned.
Verlaque reached down and tapped on the brim of her hat. “I love your white, freckled legs,” he said. “They match all the polka dots in the bar downstairs.”
“Thanks,” Marine said, rolling her eyes.
“Aren’t you hungry?”
Marine laughed. “No, but you are, I take it. Aren’t there any snacks in the minibar?”
“There was a small bag of peanuts, but I already ate them.”
“Thanks for sharing!” Marine said.
“It really was minuscule,” Verlaque replied. “About this big,” he added, putting his thumb and pointer finger about an inch apart.
Marine looked at her watch, made of white gold and encrusted with very discreet diamonds. It had been a birthday present from Verlaque, and she dreaded to even think of how much it cost, probably as much as a down payment on a smallish apartment in Aix.
“Let’s go down to the dining room,” Verlaque said, rubbing his hands together. “It’s almost eight-thirty.”
“All right, don’t rush me,” Marine said as she slowly got up from the very comfortable deck chair she had been sitting on and took one last look at the sea.
“Come on, slowpoke,” Verlaque said, already heading for the door. “Let’s get a good table.”
“Wait a minute, Antoine,” Marine said, catching up to him and gently grabbing his shoulder. “I don’t want to be rushed, or stressed, this week. There are other guests here, and so what if they get the dining table with the best view. Okay? Look at the view out of this bedroom window.”
“I’m just hungry.”
“I believe that you’re hungry,” Marine said, laughing. “But I also know that as an examining magistrate, and an independently wealthy one at that, that you’re used to getting your own way. But there are other wealthy, even famous, people here, and they too are used to getting what they want. So let’s let them have their . . . way.”
Verlaque took Marine in his arms and kissed her. He then drew away and said, “Do I have the right to send the wineglasses back if I don’t like them?”
Marine laughed and looked up at the ceiling, knowing that Antoine would be restless the entire dinner if the wineglasses were too small or their rims too thick. “Yes!”
He took her once again in his arms and kissed her, lifting up the back of her dress and running his hand up her leg toward her buttocks.
“Antoine,” Marine said, reaching behind and taking his hand in hers. “We already made love, twice, after we got here. Remember?”
“Yes,” Verlaque replied, kissing her. “That’s the problem. I remember.”
A knock at the door interrupted their embrace.
“Who could that be?” Verlaque asked.
“Sylvie,” Marine whispered.
“Why?” Verlaque asked, adopting Marine’s hushed tones. “Can’t we just meet her downstairs?”
Marine shook her head back and forth. “No, she doesn’t like going into dining room, or even to parties, alone. Shhh . . .”
“That’s ridiculous,” Verlaque whispered when the caller knocked again, this time harder.
“It’s just a phobia she has,” Marine whispered, moving toward the door. “She sees herself as a loser if she enters a place alone.”
Verlaque tapped the side of his head, putting his hand down just in time as Marine had opened the door and Sylvie rushed into their room. “Didn’t you hear me knock?” she asked. “Nice dress, Marine.” She looked over at Verlaque, who earlier had changed into a short-sleeved blue linen shirt and clean khakis, his bare feet in a new pair of Tod’s. “And you, Antoine, look very . . .”
“Elegant?” Verlaque asked.
“Preppy,” Sylvie replied. “But it suits you.”
Verlaque pressed his lips together, knowing that “preppy” for a contemporary photographer—who this evening wore a short gold-lamé dress and high-heeled strappy sandals—was an insult, but he had promised Marine he would try to get along with her best friend. He looked over at Marine, who was smiling, and she winked at him.
Excerpted from "Murder on the Ile Sordou"
Copyright © 2014 M. L. Longworth.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
“Charming”—Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review
“A splendid read” – Mystery Scene Magazine
“[T]horoughly delightful… Longworth deftly handles what is in effect a locked-room mystery, but the book’s real strength lies in the backstories she creates for each of the distinctive characters. The puzzle’s answer, buried in the past, is well prepared by what has come before.” – Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)
“Longworth once again immerses readers in French culture with this whodunit, which will delight Francophiles and fans of Donna Leon and Andrea Camilleri. The setting will also appeal to readers who enjoy trapped-on-the-island mysteries in the tradition of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.” – Library Journal
“Longworth’s maritime version of a country-house cozy offers genuine pleasures” – Kirkus
“Longworth’s novels, set in the south of France are mysteries for foodies, with the plot providing a table upon which the enchanting meals and accompanying wines are served.” – Booklist
“[A] charming read with a well-crafted mystery and characters as rich and full bodied as a Bordeaux.” – The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“The fourth installment of M.L. Longworth’s mystery series recalls some of Agatha Christie’s tales from exotic places, updated with balky Internet access… It’s an ideal beach read.” – The Minneapolis Star-Tribune