Provençal Mystery Series #5
Watch the series! Murder in Provence is now on Britbox.
A friend in his cigar club asks Antoine Verlaque to visit René Rouquet, a retired postal worker who has found a rolled-up canvas in his apartment. As the apartment once belonged to Paul Cézanne, Rouquet is convinced he’s discovered a treasure. But when Antoine arrives at the apartment, he finds René dead, the canvas missing, and a mysterious art history professor standing over the body.
When the painting is finally recovered, the mystery only deepens. The brushwork and color all point to Cézanne. But who is the smiling woman in the painting? She is definitely not the dour Madame Cézanne. Who killed René? Who stole the painting? And what will they do to get it back?
Like Donna Leon and Andrea Camilleri, M. L. Longworth’s enchanting mysteries blend clever whodunits with gustatory delights and the timeless romance of Provence. The Mystery of the Lost Cézanne adds a new twist by immersing Antoine and Marine in a clever double narrative that costars Provence’s greatest artist.
“Art theft is a hot topic on the mystery scene, and no one’s heist is livelier than Longworth’s.” —Kirkus Reviews
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Paul Cézanne did have an affair “with a mysterious Aixoise” in 1885, a curiosity I first read in a New Yorker article, later confirmed when rereading Paul Cézanne: Letters, edited by John Rewald in 1976. Cézanne’s good friends Émile Zola and Philippe Solari did, of course, exist, but all the others have been invented by the author.
La Fête des Rois
January was his favorite month. He loved Provençal winters; they were cold and dry, often with bright-blue skies. The ancient plane trees—so essential in summer to block the sun—now, without their fat leaves, looked like tall knobby sculptures. But their winter bareness revealed the Cours Mirabeau’s soft golden architecture: mansions of the seventeenth century, now banks, law offices, cafés, and the twenty-first-century addition of American chain stores. But most of all, January meant that the commercialism and strain of Christmas was over, and the routine of work, cigar club, and being with Marine could begin anew. This year he would be a better boss, a better friend, a better lover. Or try to. Like hitting the refresh button on my computer, he thought.
Antoine Verlaque paused in the middle of the Cours, leaned against one of the trees—its multicolored gray and pale-green bark like army fatigues—and relit his cigar. He slowly puffed on his Partagas, and while he smoked he watched his fellow Aixois filing up and down the wide avenue. Three teenage girls—with identical haircuts and expensive, giant leather purses—walked arm in arm, speaking so quickly that it was near to impossible for him to eavesdrop. There was something about the trio that reminded Verlaque of his own youth, spent in Paris; perhaps it was their obvious wealth—always flaunted in Aix, and in certain arrondissements in Paris—or their easiness with one another, their self-assuredness. He had had friends just like these girls in high school, but their faces were now a blur. What remained were their names, names that reflected their parents’ good taste and education, or their Catholicism: Victoire, Mazarine, Josephine, Marie-Clothilde.
An old woman came in the opposite direction. She appeared to be wearing her slippers and bathrobe. Verlaque felt his chest tighten in sadness; when she got closer he was relieved to see that she was wearing a winter coat, albeit flimsy and weather-beaten. But she was indeed wearing her slippers.
She stopped to take a rest, and leaning on her cane she looked up at the judge and smiled. “Bonne journée, monsieur,” she said slowly and carefully. Her accent was Parisian, educated.
“Bonne journée, madame,” Verlaque answered, smiling and slightly bowing in respect.
The woman took a deep breath and looked up at the sky. “Blue, and clear,” she said.
“The only blue sky in France today,” Verlaque answered. “I looked at the weather report earlier this morning.” He stopped himself from adding “on my computer.” Verlaque imagined she had an old boxy television in the corner of a room, the kind with a rabbit-ear antenna.
“Humph,” she replied, clicking her teeth. She readjusted her cane to get ready to walk on. “And Christmas is finally over.”
Verlaque laughed out loud. “Thankfully.”
She nodded in lieu of saying good-bye, and walked away. Verlaque turned to watch her go, and he wondered where she lived. Was her apartment a small, squalid bed-sit? Or was she an eccentric noblewoman, who lived with too many cats in a grand bourgeois hôtel particulier? One thing was clear to him, though: she lived alone. At least his parents still had each other—even if they rarely spoke—and a team of servants to look after them.
He walked on, heading south on the cobblestoned side of the Cours, toward his favorite pâtisserie. A couple walked toward him and he tried not to frown. They were the sort of Aixois couple he despised: she, too thin, too made-up, and sporting the same haircut and expensive bag as the teenage girls. She walked on impossibly high heels, and pushed a baby buggy almost as big as his 1961 Porsche. Verlaque couldn’t imagine how she interacted with the infant inside; it was an accessory. He realized he was probably being unfair. Try to be a better person, Antoine.
Usually he looked in peoples’ eyes to grasp something of their character, but husband and wife both wore enormous sunglasses, the kind that made the wearer look like a fly. Dolce & Gabbana. They both had the same colored, streaked hair (or was it possible to have natural hair with a dozen shades of red and blond?), and he wore a leather motorcycle jacket that was covered in brand names and insignias. Verlaque tried not to be angered by their obvious posing; he knew that Marine hardly noticed others around her. He took a drag of his cigar and vowed to be more inward thinking, like Marine.
“Another damn resolution,” he mumbled. And then he saw the queue. “What the—?”
A lineup, at least twenty people long, flowed out of Michaud’s and onto the sidewalk. Verlaque pulled out his cell phone and checked the date. “Merde!” The phone then rang and he answered it, almost yelling. “Oui!”
“Good morning, sir. Am I interrupting you?”
“No, no,” Verlaque answered. “Sorry, Bruno. I’m standing on the Cours, hungry, in front of Michaud’s, and forgot that it was January sixth.”
Aix-en-Provence’s commissioner laughed and then coughed. “Sorry, sir. Are people queuing up to buy their galettes des rois?”
“Of course they are!” Verlaque said as he got in line. “Do people actually like those things?”
Bruno Paulik coughed again. “Well,” he said, “yeah.”
“I just want a brioche; I didn’t have time for breakfast,” Verlaque said. “I’ll be a while getting back.”
“Sir,” Paulik began, “since you’re in the queue—”
“You want a brioche, too? No problem.”
“No, actually,” Paulik said, “I’d promised Hélène and Léa that I’d buy them a galette, for this evening.”
“Oh mon dieu,” Verlaque said.
“A medium-size one will do,” Paulik said, ignoring Verlaque’s comment. “Don’t forget the paper crown,” he continued. “Léa will go berserk if there isn’t the crown.”
“I know about the crown, Bruno,” Verlaque said, inching forward toward the shop’s front door. He stepped up onto the first step of the shop and set his cigar on the window ledge, planning on picking it up on his way out. The smell of butter and warm sugar made his stomach growl. “I can’t remember the last time I had a galette des rois. I’ve never cared for almond paste—”
“In fact,” Paulik continued, as if he hadn’t heard a word, “we’re having a Fête des Rois this afternoon at the Palais de Justice; I forgot to tell you.”
Verlaque held his cell phone away from his ear and looked at it, bewildered at his rugby-playing commissioner’s enthusiasm.
Paulik continued, “And Léa asked me this morning if you and Marine could come to our place tonight to celebrate.”
Verlaque smiled, touched by Léa’s earnest invitation. But the thought of having to eat an almond paste pie, twice in one day, turned his stomach over. “We’d love to come,” he found himself answering, thinking of Léa Paulik’s bright ten-year-old face. “I have my cigar club tonight, but I can show up late.”
“Great. How was court this morning?”
“Well worth our effort, Bruno,” Verlaque answered. “Kévin Malongo will be behind bars for the next twenty years.”
“Perfect. See you soon.”
Verlaque was finally inside Michaud’s. Stainless steel racks had been pulled out of the back room and filled the interior of the shop, each one stacked high with the flaky galettes. Those customers still in line strained to see the cakes, already selecting their favorite. Verlaque winced; they all looked the same to him. Other customers, ahead in the queue, pointed to their chosen cake, and a black-and-white-uniformed Michaud salesgirl carefully lifted the cake and placed it in a shiny red box. The prices Verlaque could hear being rung in at the cash register astounded him. Thirty euros? There was just a bean hidden in the cake, not a bloody diamond. And why was there going to be a party at the Palais de Justice this afternoon? He tried to picture his group of police officers, gathered around the cakes, with the youngest officer—Jules?—sitting cross-legged under his desk, calling out names. Verlaque sighed; sometimes he loved the traditions of his country, and sometimes . . .
“Monsieur le juge?” a saleswoman asked. Verlaque recognized her; she had been working at Michaud’s as long as he could remember. She obviously knew him, too.
“Un galette des rois, s’il vous plaît, et deux brioches,” he answered.
“Which one?” she asked.
Verlaque looked at the cakes. The ones lower down looked too small, and he eliminated the cakes that looked lopsided or messy. The saleswoman shifted her weight and he finally pointed to one on the top shelf. If they were to be five that evening, Léa would want a big cake. “Don’t forget the crown!” he called after her.
• • •
Natalie Chazeau had been watching Antoine Verlaque from the window. L’Agence de la Ville was Aix-en-Provence’s most luxurious real estate office, or it had been until that summer when John Taylor Realtors opened a branch across the street. Mme Chazeau, a handsome, tall woman in her early seventies, was the company’s owner, and had built it up from scratch with her husband, who had died of a heart attack twenty years earlier. They were young newlyweds when they bought the office, prestigiously located on the Cours Mirabeau, and for years had lived frugally while paying back the loan. It was now worth a fortune.
Mme Chazeau was adding new color photographs of two estates for sale—one just outside of Aix and the other in the Luberon—in the office’s large plate-glass window, where the Aixois could stroll by, see the photos, stop, and dream. People who ended up buying estates sold by L’Agence de la Ville rarely did so by seeing the photographs in the windows; more often than not they hired scouts to find them the perfect (often second or third) home. But the agency was known for its window display, as was Pâtisserie Michaud across the street, whose queue Verlaque was now impatiently standing in.
She pinned up the last photograph and looked at the judge, who had his head bent, speaking on his cell phone while trying to puff on a cigar. The queue moved slowly. He reminded her of her only child, Christophe, a friend of the judge’s and a fellow cigar smoker, who had recently moved to Paris to open his own agency. Had she been a younger woman she would have done everything she could to work her way into Antoine Verlaque’s arms. But those days were over, and she knew that the judge saw her as others did—a distinguished, hard-working old woman who probably dyed her thick black hair (she didn’t). She looked at Verlaque’s wide back, clothed in a black coat that she guessed was cashmere, and she reached up and twisted one of her diamond earrings—a gift from Christophe.
Her office phone rang and she answered it, and by the time it got dark, just before 6:00 p.m., she had had more than fifteen calls. She left her office and told Julie, her secretary, that she could leave for the day. Mme Chazeau herself would lock up after tonight’s meeting. She thanked Julie for her hard work, adjusted the thin wool scarf around the young girl’s neck, and then stood looking out the glass door at the lineup across the street. The judge had long gone; she hadn’t seen how many cakes he had bought. Mme Chazeau wished she could go home, put on her slippers, call her half brother Franz, and tell him about Michaud’s famed galettes des rois. But tonight she would be working, hosting a meeting of apartment owners who owned flats in the four-story apartment at 23 rue Boulegon. There had been a time, when sales were easier to get, that she had refused to work as a syndic. Smaller, less prestigious Realtors could take on the headache of dealing with the often-daily problems in running a small apartment building. Especially apartments that had been built in old Aix and were themselves often more than five hundred years old. But finding clients—French or foreign—to buy estates worth more than two million euros was getting harder to do, so she agreed to represent the owners at 23 rue Boulegon, if only for the prestige: it was a beautiful, well-kept building, and it had been Paul Cézanne’s last residence.
A thud brought her out of her reverie; René Rouquet had walked into the glass door. Startled, she opened the door. “M. Rouquet,” she said, “you should walk with your head up. Welcome. You’re the first here.”
Rouquet mumbled a good evening, walked in with his head still down, and stood with his back to Julie’s marble-topped desk, fidgeting with his wool hat. Mme Chazeau smiled, pleased that the gruff retired postman had remembered his manners and removed his hat. The tiny bell that hung above the door rang again and she turned around; it seemed that the rest of the owners had all arrived at the same time: Pierre Millot, who came with the new owners of his top-floor apartment, a young couple whom Mme Chazeau hadn’t yet met; Dr. Pitavy, a podiatrist who owned a two-room office on the ground floor, to the left of the building’s entrance; and Philomène Joubert, who owned and rented out the two apartments on the second floor, above Dr. Pitavy’s office.
“Did you see the queue at Michaud’s?” Mme Joubert said as she walked in, blowing on her hands, wishing she had not left her apartment on the rue Cardinale without gloves.
“I bought my galette this morning,” Dr. Pitavy said, smirking.
“I made my own,” Philomène Joubert said, glaring at the doctor. What a pretentious bore, she thought to herself.
Pierre Millot turned to the young couple, Françoise and Eric Legendre, who had just moved to Aix, and explained. “Michaud’s is an institution,” he said. “Cézanne even bought his pastries there.”
“Let’s go upstairs to the meeting room, now that everyone is here,” Mme Chazeau said. She turned the door’s lock and left a large set of keys dangling in it.
“Et le Belge?” René Rouquet asked as they mounted the stairs.
“M. Staelens,” Mme Chazeau slowly said, “called me this afternoon. He’s at home in Brussels and sends his best wishes.”
Mme Chazeau closed the conference room’s door, out of habit, once everyone sat down. She went to the head of the table and opened a red file. “Pierre, why don’t you introduce the new owners of your former apartment?” she asked, sitting down. She didn’t add that she thought it odd that Pierre Millot was present that evening, as he no longer owned an apartment at number 23. But she had seen it before—some people had a hard time letting go, even once all the documents had been signed. One seller, years ago, had such remorse that he drove every evening to his former house and parked in the street, looking at the grounds that he had lovingly tended for thirty years. When he began to wander around the yard, the new owners had to get a restraining order.
Pierre straightened his back and began. “I’d like to introduce Eric and Françoise Legendre, who moved into my former apartment six days ago. They are returning to France after spending over ten years in New York.”
“New York?” Mme Chazeau asked. “How was that?”
“Expensive,” Eric Legendre flatly replied.
“So I’ve heard,” Mme Chazeau replied. “Welcome to Aix. If you have any questions about the city, I’m always available.”
“Thank you,” Françoise Legendre quietly replied, looking at her husband and smiling.
Mme Chazeau picked up a pen. She would act as secretary that night. “First on the agenda is the hall and stairway cleaning. The price is going up fifteen euros a month. Does everyone approve this?”
“What choice do we have?” Dr. Pitavy asked.
“Change companies,” Mme Chazeau said. “Which means interviewing them. And I’ve already looked into it. The one we’re using is still the cheapest, even if they raise the fee.”
“In that case, I approve,” Mme Joubert said, raising her hand.
“So does M. Staelens,” Mme Chazeau said. “We went over this evening’s agenda on the telephone.” She looked at the Legendres and explained, “Jan Staelens owns a large apartment on the third floor. He uses it for vacations. What do you think about the cleaning fees?”
Eric Legendre looked at his wife and shrugged. “We approve, I guess.”
“So do I,” Dr. Pitavy said, sighing.
“M. Rouquet?” Mme Chazeau asked.
René Rouquet looked up. He had been twirling his hat in his hands, thinking of other things. More important things.
“We were voting on the fee increase for cleaning the building’s common areas,” Mme Chazeau reminded him. “Everyone has approved it.”
“Oh, okay, then,” Rouquet said.
Mme Chazeau tapped her pen on the table.
“I approve,” René said.
“Thank you,” Mme Chazeau replied, taking notes. She had expected more of a fight from René Rouquet, who was notoriously cheap. He usually paid more attention. “Second on the agenda—”
“The mysterious storage room,” Dr. Pitavy interjected.
“I’m willing to pay rent for its use,” Dr. Pitavy went on. “It’s right across the hall from my office. I have equipment I need to store, and paperwork that the tax man and medical fraternity insist we keep for ten years. If I don’t have somewhere to put all of that I’ll have to move my office. And, as you all know, it’s quite nice having a quiet podiatrist downstairs, instead of a dentist, who’s drilling, or—horror of horrors—a snack shop, frying meats . . .”
“Who is using the débarras?” Philomène Joubert asked. “One of my students, the one who’s renting the smaller flat, asked if she could put her bicycle in it.” Mme Joubert loved renting her two apartments on rue Boulegon to students—always female—and she treated them like family (especially the ones who went to Mass). She no longer had to list the apartments at the university; they passed down through friends, sisters, and cousins by word of mouth.
“The clothing store at 21 Boulegon,” Dr. Pitavy answered.
Mme Chazeau sighed and set down her pen. It seemed that the podiatrist had taken over the meeting.
“They use it to store extra stock,” Dr. Pitavy continued. “And they won’t say who they’re renting it from!”
“M. Rouquet,” Mme Chazeau carefully said, looking at René. “Since the subject of the ground-floor storage room has never before been an issue, only today did I look at the deeds, and I discovered that it belongs to you. Would you be willing to rent it out to Dr. Pitavy?”
René Rouquet looked at her, surprised, and then glared at Pierre. He grabbed his coat and got up, knocking over a chair in the process, mumbling as he opened the door. Eric and Françoise Legendre looked at Mme Chazeau, bewildered. Philomène Joubert took out her wool and needles and began knitting.
“Please don’t leave, René,” Mme Chazeau called after the ex-postman.
“I’ll talk to him,” Pierre Millot said, getting up and quickly putting on his coat. “René’s just being—”
“René,” replied Mme Chazeau, as she heard the front door open and close, its little bell ringing. She stood up and walked to the large window that overlooked the Cours Mirabeau. There was still a queue at Michaud’s, and René and Pierre had stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. René was gesturing wildly and Pierre reached up to the old man’s shoulders, only to have his hands brushed away. “Where were we?” Mme Chazeau asked as she turned back around to the now-smaller group.
You know you look foolish wearing a gold paper crown while driving a Porsche,” Marine said, glancing over at her boyfriend.
“Really?” Verlaque asked, feigning surprise. “Do you mean to say that if I was driving a different vehicle, say, a newer-model Peugeot, or a battered pickup truck, I’d look better with the crown?”
Marine laughed out loud. “You had fun, didn’t you?”
“I always have fun with the Pauliks,” Verlaque answered. “And as much as I dislike the cake, I do get a kick out of the youngest person in the room sitting under the table, calling out names. It was always Sébastien who got to do it at our place.”
“And it was always me at ours,” Marine replied. Marine Bonnet, a law professor, was an only child, born to a family doctor and his theologian wife. She went on, “Léa was tickled pink you were served the slice with the bean.”
“My loyal subject.”
“I think she was more excited to see how ridiculous you’d look wearing the crown.”
“You’ll be sent to the tower for that remark.”
Marine smiled and looked out of the car’s window; even when it was dark out, they both insisted on taking the narrow, winding Route de Cézanne instead of the straighter Route Nationale. The Porsche’s lights lit up the shimmering silver leaves of the olive trees as they passed. Every time she was on this road she thought of Aix’s famous son Paul Cézanne, and how he would walk this road daily, his easel strapped to his back. He died on this road, too, caught in a sudden storm and contracting pneumonia, dying a few days later at the age of sixty-seven.
“It’s amazing when Léa sings for us, isn’t it?” Verlaque asked, smiling as he drove.
“Mmm,” Marine said, frowning. “But I worry about the amount of time the music conservatory takes out of a young person’s life.”
“Didn’t you see her face?”
“Yes,” Marine slowly replied. “Of course she was happy singing. She had a captivated audience.”
“So you think her happiness wasn’t genuine?” Verlaque asked, glancing at Marine.
“She’s the kind of little girl who’ll do anything to please her elders.”
Verlaque geared down to first gear and swung his 1961 Porsche around a hairpin turn. “How do you know?”
Marine tried to smile. “Because I was that kind of little girl.”
“And look at you now.”
“Exactly. Careful, there’s a sleeping policeman coming up.”
Verlaque slowed the car down to slowly pass over the speed bump. “Thank you,” he said. He had been happy listening to Léa sing, and so he was frustrated that Marine was putting a black cloud over the evening. They entered the outskirts of Aix, and the olive orchards gave way to small houses and low-rise apartment blocks. This was Aix’s quiet La Torse neighborhood, almost as expensive as the Route de Cézanne itself. Every time he met people from La Torse they bragged that they could walk downtown and yet were only a three-minute drive from the highway, plus they could park their cars right in front of their houses or apartments. He hated La Torse.
“Let’s get back to Léa,” Verlaque said. “Don’t you think that Bruno and Hélène would stop her from all of the music lessons if they saw that she was suffering?”
Marine bit her bottom lip. “I don’t know them well enough to say.”
“But you claim to know their daughter.”
“Oh just forget it, Antoine.”
“What’s bothering you? Why are you in such a gloomy mood? You’ve been acting weird lately.”
“I’m okay,” she said quietly.
Verlaque turned right onto le périph—the ring road that surrounded Aix’s old town—and then quickly turned left and drove down the steep and narrow rue Emeric David, which almost dead-ended into the great white neoclassical Palais de Justice.
“You don’t sound convinced,” he said, glancing over at her again.
“I don’t like sounding whiny,” she anwswered. “I know that I should be happy: I have a good academic job that challenges me and that I enjoy—well, except for the numerous pointless meetings. My parents are both alive, and healthy. I bought my apartment before the new TGV station brought trainloads of Parisians to Aix, flooding our real estate market. And,” she said, reaching over and rubbing Verlaque’s shoulder, “I’m in love with a wonderful man. But tonight I have the blues, and I don’t know why. I’m almost ashamed—”
“Are you mad at me?”
Marine sighed. “Honestly, Antoine.” She almost added “not everything revolves around you,” but she kept that thought to herself. Antoine wanted an explanation—words, and answers. But despite being surrounded by words and arguments all day at school, tonight Marine couldn’t describe her feelings. She could only describe what she saw: the Pauliks in their three-hundred-year-old farmhouse, laughing about the leaking roof in the dining room; Léa singing, her brown eyes lighting up when she looked at Antoine; and Antoine, despite being one of the moodiest people she had ever met, laughing like he hadn’t a care in the world. She didn’t understand it, and she hated being emotional over something she couldn’t explain. She had overheard Antoine, while washing the wineglasses with Hélène Paulik, tell Hélène of his parents in Paris. He’d said, “I think they pass each other in the hallway once a week.” But he had said it in a light enough way—imitating his mother’s permanent frown—that Hélène had laughed. It had taken a year of dating before Antoine had even told Marine his parents’ names.
“The city is more beautiful at night,” Marine said, looking out the passenger window. “At least in the winter. At night the buildings are more than just gold; they’re luminous.”
“Wow,” Verlaque said. “What a way to change the subject.” He slowed the car down to pass over another sleeping policeman on the rue d’Italie. “We’re almost at your place, and you’re not getting out until you tell me what’s wrong.” He turned right on the rue Fernand Dol and stopped in front of Marine’s green door.
“Please don’t tell me what to do, Antoine.”
“What?” he asked, turning on his hazard lights. A Volkswagen Polo blaring loud, thumping music pulled up behind him. Verlaque winced and said, “Marine, I’m trying to understand how this conversation about a happy little girl turned into you admitting that you’re not happy.”
The Polo beeped its horn. Marine opened her door and quickly got out. Verlaque got out of his side and ran to her.
“It’s late, Antoine,” Marine said, fishing for her keys at the bottom of her purse. “We can talk about things tomorrow.”
“What things?” he asked. “What’s wrong?” The Polo beeped again and Verlaque swore and walked over to the car, motioning for the driver to roll down his window. “Hold your horses for two seconds,” Verlaque said to the driver, a young man with diamond earrings and neck tattoos. The driver looked up at Verlaque and laughed.
“I spent a few hours this morning putting someone who looks just like you behind bars,” Verlaque told him. “Twenty years.”
The Polo driver shrugged, still smiling, and Verlaque heard a door thump closed. He swung around and saw that Marine had gone. “Putain de merde!” he shouted, resisting the temptation to bang his fist on the VW’s roof. He walked back to his car and got in, putting it into first gear, and slowly drove away. The cigar club was to be at Jean-Marc and Pierre’s apartment, not far away, on the rue Papassaudi. There was no point in going back to Marine’s. He’d sleep across town at his place tonight, and tomorrow, when he had gone over every detail of the evening, he’d try to figure out what was wrong. Had he said something at the Pauliks’ to anger Marine? Did he pay too much attention to Léa? It was true, he loved Fauré’s hymns, and Léa sang them beautifully. Marine liked jazz, especially Brazilian, and so didn’t take part in their classical-music conversations. Had she felt left out? Verlaque realized that he had also spoken a lot to Hélène, who, as a winemaker, did something that he had always secretly wished was his profession. Perhaps working with grapes would have been an easier métier, and possibly more rewarding, than prosecuting all the Kévin Malongos of Aix. He looked in his rearview mirror and saw that the Polo was no longer behind him.
Verlaque slowed down, spotting a parking spot up ahead; he didn’t have time to drive to the other side of the old town, where, unlike the La Torse folks, he rented a parking spot. He drove slowly toward the rare empty spot, but just as he was about to signal to pull in, a Mini turned left from a cross street just in front of him. He slammed on the brakes and cursed. The Mini—a car he particularly hated, and this one had red and white racing stripes up its sides—pulled quickly into the spot.
“Son of a—” Verlaque exclaimed in English. He turned around to try to make eye contact with the driver but couldn’t see him or her. He drove on, past the Collège Mignet, which had been Cézanne’s and Zola’s high school when they had still been friends and dreamed of changing the world. “Salut, les gars,” he whispered to their ghosts. He was about to give up and head for his parking garage when he saw a spot, the last one before the road curved and the parking spots ended. He signaled and quickly pulled in, turning off the car and grabbing his travel cigar case out of the glove compartment. He locked the car and walked quickly up the rue Laroque, past the cinema, and alongside Michaud’s, where he half expected to still see a lineup. The bakery was closed for the evening, but the smell of butter still permeated the street.
The Cours Mirabeau was quiet on a winter’s evening, and despite his rush, Verlaque dipped his hand into the steaming La Moussue fountain, feeling the warm, thermal-fed water run through his fingers. He turned up the rue Clemenceau, which would eventually lead him to the cigar club. His fellow Aixois smiled as he passed. He found himself smiling back.
He buzzed at Jean-Marc and Pierre’s building at number 19, and the heavy wooden door made a thudding noise, opening about an inch. He pushed against it and walked into the foyer, making sure the door closed well behind him; thefts in the old town were rampant. He skipped up the building’s worn stone steps two at a time, past the architects’ offices on the first floor, on up to the second floor that Jean-Marc and Pierre shared with their neighbor, a retired tax inspector who listened to his television too loudly—despite several pleas from the other tenants—and never seemed to leave.
The apartment door—still sporting a small Christmas wreath—was ajar and Verlaque walked in to a cloud of cigar smoke. He breathed in and said, “Good evening, my friends. What a lovely smell.”
Jean-Marc Sauvat stared at Antoine Verlaque with an open mouth, and his partner, Pierre, began to laugh. Gaspard Baille, a law student and the club’s youngest member, put his hand on his heart and knelt before the judge. The club’s president, Fabrice, who owned a string of plumbing stores across southern France, was the first to speak. “Mon roi,” Fabrice said, bowing slightly and shaking some ash off his generously proportioned stomach. “We are your humble servants.”
Antoine Verlaque immediately realized what had happened. “So that’s why people kept smiling at me,” he said, reaching up to his head.
A flash from a cell phone temporarily blinded Verlaque, and he quickly removed his prize, folding the paper crown and putting it in his coat pocket.
“What’s it worth to you for me not to send this photo to the newspapers?” asked Julien, slipping his iPhone back into his pocket.
Verlaque looked at Julien—a gregarious, trèsgourmand luxury-used-car salesman whom he would trust with his life—and laughed. “My firstborn?” Verlaque asked.
“Deal,” replied Julien. “But I think your beautiful Dr. Bonnet might have issues with that promise.”
The group laughed and Jean-Marc glanced nervously at his good friend the judge. Never had Antoine Verlaque mentioned marriage, or children, with Marine Bonnet, nor with anyone else for that matter.
“Did you eat dinner, Antoine?” Jean-Marc asked.
“Yes,” Verlaque said, rubbing his stomach, which in turn reminded him of his New Year’s resolution. “Thanks.”
“Would you like a whiskey?” Jean-Marc then asked, taking his friend by the arm. “We have some very good Johnnie Walker.”
Verlaque looked at Jean-Marc and was about to decline when the lawyer, who was also an old friend of Marine’s, began to smile. “Just kidding,” Jean-Marc said. “We have a bit of Ardbeg, if Julien and Fabrice haven’t finished it yet.”
“I hid the rest of it,” Pierre said, appearing beside them.
“Good call,” Verlaque said. He watched Pierre quickly put his arm through Jean-Marc’s, but then draw it away. The couple had just moved in together and only very recently made their relationship public to the cigar club. “If you can sneak me some Ardbeg, that would be great,” Verlaque whispered. “I was in court most of the morning, then spent the rest of my day having to eat galettes des rois.”
Pierre looked at Jean-Marc.
“We’re having more galettes tonight, aren’t we?” Verlaque asked, following Jean-Marc and Pierre into the kitchen.
“Julien and Fabrice bought three at Michaud’s,” Jean-Marc said.
“For an insane amount of money,” Pierre added.
“One’s even decorated,” Jean-Marc continued, his voice flat with sarcasm. “With a big cigar in brown icing. Julien and Fabrice charmed one of the salesgirls into asking the baker to add it.”
Verlaque smiled at the thought of two overweight middle-aged men being able to charm a pretty young girl in her twenties. Jean-Marc opened a cupboard and reached his hand inside, pouring the hidden single malt into a crystal tumbler, then quickly closing the cupboard and handing Verlaque the glass.
“You can decline the galette,” Pierre said.
Verlaque took a drink and smiled. “Ah, la tourbe d’Islay. I do like this heavy peaty taste,” he said. “Thank you for managing to save me some.” He sighed and leaned against the kitchen counter.
“Rough day?” Jean-Marc asked.
“It began terribly but was salvaged by hearing a ten-year-old sing Fauré, but then—” He closed his eyes and took another sip. “I’m not sure what happened after that. Something went wrong with Marine, but I have no idea what, or why. Do you two ever have those lapses of communication?”
“Never,” Jean-Marc replied, while Pierre said, “All the time.”
They laughed, and Verlaque added, “And I think I will decline on the dessert.”
“What’s this about dessert?” Julien asked, entering the kitchen. “When do we get our galettes?” He helped himself to a chocolate and Pierre slapped his hand.
“How can you still be hungry?” Pierre asked. “You had two helpings of Jean-Marc’s daube.”
“Don’t worry, Julien,” Jean-Marc said, flattered that his Provençal beef stew had gone over so well. “Antoine was just saying he might pass on dessert.”
“Who’s passing on galettes des rois?” Fabrice asked, forcing his way into the small kitchen.
“Antoine,” Julien said, looking suspiciously at Verlaque’s glass.
“Hey, guys!” Gaspard called out over the heads. Gaspard Baille was six foot four, almost a foot taller than Julien and Fabrice. “We want to start smoking the Hoyo de Monterrey. What are you all doing, gabbing in the kitchen like a bunch of old ladies?”
“Merci, Gaspard!” Jean-Marc hollered, ushering the men out with his hands. “I could use a little more room in the kitchen to load the dishwasher and start it running.” Jean-Marc was never comfortable when he hosted a dinner party unless he had the kitchen cleaned and the dishwasher en route.
Pierre, knowing his boyfriend’s quirks, followed the men out of the kitchen, taking Verlaque aside in the hallway. “When things have calmed down a bit, I have a favor to ask.”
“No problem,” Verlaque replied, trying to block out the noise of Julien and Fabrice squabbling over possession of an armchair. “Has your apartment sale gone through?”
“Yes, no hitches,” Pierre said. “Cash buyer. My favor actually concerns the apartment. Well, not my apartment, but my neighbor’s.”
“The cranky old guy?”
Pierre laughed. “Yes, I quit the rue Boulegon for a more upscale street in Aix, only to end up with another cranky old guy as a neighbor.”
“The well-off can be even more surly—”
“Antoine! Pierre! We’re opening the cigar box!”
“On arrive!” Verlaque hollered back.
Verlaque walked into Jean-Marc and Pierre’s small but elegant living room and saw Julien hovering over Fabrice—who had won the armchair fight—with his watch in his hands. “I’m timing Fabrice,” Julien said, trying to pick at the small dial on his expensive Tag Heuer watch. His hands were too large, and Virginie, the club’s sole female member, offered to help. Verlaque looked on, perplexed.
“Fabrice gets thirty minutes in the chair,” Virginie explained, setting the watch’s alarm with her slender fingers.
“Oh for heaven’s sake,” Verlaque replied, but he couldn’t help laughing.
Gaspard passed around a small bundle of the evening’s second cigar. Verlaque selected a bouncy, still-humid cigar, and took out his cutter. “There’s no band,” he remarked as he turned the dark brown torpedo-shaped cigar in his hand. He felt his cell phone vibrate in his jacket pocket and hoped that it was Marine.
“They’re from our Cuba trip,” Gaspard replied.
“Bijou!” Fabrice yelled.
“Jewel?” Verlaque asked, looking at Gaspard.
“That’s my Cuban nickname,” Gaspard earnestly explained. “We all get one, once we go to Cuba. You have to come on the next trip.”
Julien added, “The welcome lady—a big, roly-poly Cuban—took one look at our handsome Gaspard and gave him that name on the spot.”
“Bijou suits Gaspard perfectly. So what name did she give you two?” Verlaque asked, pointing to Julien and Fabrice.
Julien coughed and Fabrice changed the subject. “We bought these cigars at a private cigar roller’s operation, in Centro Habana,” Fabrice said.c
Verlaque smiled at Fabrice’s intentional use of the “b” in Havana.
Fabrice cut his cigar and began to light it. “It’s a two-man show, in the back of this old hotel,” he continued. “One guy rolls, the other guy, Emilio, is the patron. Brings you rum and coffee and sits down with you for a smoke. We bought tons. No cigar bands, either. Chic, eh?”
“There was a fashion designer who did that a few years ago,” Virginie said. “Reverse marketing; hide the brand name. They just left four little white stitches of thread on the back of the dresses and shirts—”
“Gracias, Virginie,” Fabrice said.
Virginie rolled her eyes. “Go ahead and tell everyone about this kid Alberto you met,” she said.
Fabrice, the club’s president, leaned forward. “We took two days and drove out to see the tobacco fields at Viñales,” he said. “We had to show them to Bijou. And we stayed in this tiny village, in a bed-and-breakfast run by this nice old lady and her daughter.”
“Neat as a pin,” Julien said.
“You could have eaten off the floor,” Fabrice added.
“And while we were having our mojitos on the terrace—” Julien continued.
“Naturally,” Verlaque said.
“This Cuban kid, about twenty years old, comes over to us from the neighbor’s patio and asks if he can speak French with us,” Julien said. “And you should have heard his French.”
“Parisian accent and everything,” Fabrice cut in.
“Perfect slang, too,” Gaspard added. “Like any law student here in Aix.”
“Where did he learn it?” Jean-Marc asked. “I’ve heard the Cuban education is great—”
“Zero illiteracy in Cuba,” Gaspard said.
“Bijou turned Commie on us over there,” Julien explained.
Gaspard sighed. “There’s just a lot that makes sense,” he said, leaning back and puffing his cigar. “Free education up to the PhD level; zero illiteracy; free medical care.”
“We have all that, too,” Jean-Marc said.
“I’m not sure that France has one hundred percent literacy,” Gaspard replied. “And I love the fact that they’re not connected to cyberspace like we are—”
“Ha!” Julien snorted. “As if that’s their choice!”
Gaspard tilted his head. “Well, I for one wouldn’t miss not having Internet, or Facebook, or Twitter.”
“I could handle no social media,” Virginie said. “I wouldn’t have to look at ten photos of my sister’s kids everyday.”
“This Alberto,” Pierre said, refilling peoples’ flutes with champagne, and trying to get back to the story. He hated political discussions at parties. And so far no one had remarked on his new flutes, bought at a consignment shop beside the Rotonde fountain. Each crystal glass was etched with a dragonfly—his favorite animal—and he was besotted with them. “So where did Alberto learn his French?”
“He fell in love with a French girl,” Fabrice said.
“Classic!” Verlaque bellowed.
“She was studying music at the conservatory in Habana,” Fabrice said. “Alberto explained that the best French music students often get sent to Cuba, whose conservatory is even more rigorous than ours.”
“See,” said Gaspard.
Verlaque thought of little Léa and tried to imagine her in Cuba in ten years’ time.
Excerpted from "The Mystery of the Lost Cezanne"
Copyright © 2015 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
Praise for M.L. Longworth
Praise for Murder on the Ile Sordou “[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 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
“Charming”—Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review
“A splendid read” – Mystery Scene Magazine
Praise for Death in the Vines “Judge Antoine Verlaque, the sleuth in this civilized series, discharges his professional duties with discretion. But we’re here to taste the wines, which are discussed by experts like Hippolyte Thebaud, a former wine thief, and served in beautiful settings like a 300-year-old stone farmhouse. So many bottles, so many lovely views. A reader might be forgiven for feeling woozy.” – Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times
“Though the plot is hair-raising, what keeps you glued to this mystery is its vivid portrait of everyday life in Aix, which deftly juxtaposes the elegance of the city…with quotidian woes and pleasures.” – Oprah.com
“What follows is a lovely, almost cozy police procedural that deserves to be read with a glass of wine in hand. Longworth paints such a loving picture of Provence that it's likely you'll start planning a vacation trip to France the moment you set the book down.” – The Denver Post
“This is an intelligently written police procedural with the warm comfort of a baguette with banon cheese.” – Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine
Praise for Murder in the Rue Dumas “As intricate as the mystery is, what provides the most pleasure in reading Murder in the Rue Dumas is Longworth’s description of Verlaque and Bonet’s daily lives… one can practically smell the freshly-baked croissants.” – Seattle Post-Intelligencer
“What really makes Longforth’s writing special is her deep knowledge of French history, landscape, cuisine, and even contemporary cafes and restaurants. This is that rare atmospheric mystery that is street-wise and café-canny.” – Booklist (starred review)
“Longworth’s gentle procedural succeeds on several levels, whether it’s for academic and literary allusions, police work, or armchair travel. With deftly shifting points of view, Longworth creates a beguiling read that will appeal to Louise Penny and Donna Leon fans.” – Library Journal
“French-set mysteries have never been more popular [and] among the very best is a series set in Provence featuring Monsieur Verlaque, an examining magistrate, and his sometime girlfriend, law professor Marine Bonnet.” – The Denver Post
Praise for Death at the Chateau Bremont “This first novel in a projected series has charm, wit, and Aix-en- Provence all going for it. Longworth's voice is like a rich vintage of sparkling Dorothy Sayers and grounded Donna Leon...Longworth has lived in Aix since 1997, and her knowledge of the region is apparent on every page. Bon appétit.” – Booklist
“A promising debut for Longworth, who shows there's more to France than Paris and more to mystery than Maigret.” – Kirkus
“Mystery and romance served up with a hearty dose of French cuisine. I relished every word. Longworth does for Aix-en-Provence what Frances Mayes does for Tuscany: You want to be there-NOW!” – Babara Fairchild, former editor-in-chief, Bon Appetit Magazine
“Death at Chateau Bremont is replete with romance, mystery, and a rich atmosphere that makes the south of France spring off the page in a manner reminiscent of Donna Leon's Venice. A wonderful start to a series sure to gain a legion of fans.” – Tasha Alexander, author of the Lady Emily mysteries
“Longworth has a good eye and a sharp wit, and this introduction to Verlaque and Bonnet holds promise for a terrific series.” – Globe and Mail