Provençal Mystery Series #9
Watch the series! Murder in Provence is now on Britbox.
Something strange has happened at the unassuming Musée de Quentin-Savary in Aix-en-Provence. When the director, Monsieur Achille Formentin, walks in one beautiful April morning, he is shocked to find the whole museum emptied of its contentsonly a bench, the reception desk, and a lowly fern remain.
Distressed, he calls the local police, and Aix's examining magistrate Antoine Verlaque sets out to discover the thief's identity. But it's the most baffling case Verlaque has ever encountered. Why would someone want to steal porcelain dessert plates, some old documents, and a few small paintings? Could this have something to do with the mysterious robbery of Madame de Montbarbon's apartment a few weeks earlier? And how can Verlaque possibly concentrate on the theft when he and his wife, Marine Bonnet, are going to have a baby?
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Friday, April 20
Lea Paulik wished that the little man leading them around the museum had permitted them to leave their backpacks in the front hall. Her back was killing her, the heaviness of her textbook a constant reminder of the Spanish homework she still had to do quickly during her lunch break. It was her own fault, she knew. She had stayed up too late scrolling through Instagram and texting Alexandra until she heard her father pound out of her parents' bedroom and into the living room to unplug the router. How had he known? She looked across the room and winked at Alexandra, who was intermittently yawning and chewing gum.
Lea shifted, trying to balance the weight on her back. She turned to look at the painting that the little man was going on and on about. The painter's last name, Olive, was easy to remember. That would come in handy, as Mme Forbin was going to quiz them on Tuesday about this visit. Lea didn't mind because she always paid attention. She knew how lucky she was to get these kinds of outings at the College Mignet, her junior high school in Aix's posh Quartier Mazarin. Many of her classmates were posh themselves, and she looked around at them now. They were either yawning like Alexandra, looking down at the floor, or whispering to a friend. She looked back at the painting, and this time she heard the painter's full name: Jean-Baptiste Olive.
"This charming tableau was painted in the late nineteenth century," the little man said. "I'm sure it's obvious to you all that it's of the entrance to the port of Marseille. Olive did many paintings of this exact same scene, but this one has always been my favorite. Its bright light on the water-"
"Oh! I recognize that spot!" yelled Zo‘, probably the richest girl in the whole school. "We go sailing by there all the time!"
At least ten of their classmates groaned, and Lea smirked, but Zo‘ didn't seem to notice.
"I love the smoke," Mme Forbin said, taking off her glasses and leaning in closer. "Students, look at the bright blue sea and clear sky at the entrance to the port. But if we look up into the old town, the sky is almost black." She pointed to the streets and buildings that surrounded Marseille's port and Lßa tried to get closer to see. Sure enough, several chimneys emitted a thick gray smoke. Marseille's sky was always a brilliant blue whenever she visited it with her parents. "Why do French towns no longer have that kind of smoke?" Mme Forbin asked the class.
"Because it's from coal," Lea said.
Mme Forbin smiled and nodded. "Exactly."
The little man seemed to be getting edgy; he didn't know that Mme Forbin, when you got her on an interesting subject, could go off track until the bell rang. Those were always Lea's favorite times at school. "Come along and look at the porcelain," he said.
"Oh, goody!" cried Eddy Peyrot, rubbing his hands together in mock glee.
Lea laughed despite herself-she didn't like Edouard Peyrot, even though her friend Alexandra adored him. She looked over at Mme Forbin, who was covering her grin with the palm of her hand. "Oui, M Formentin," she said, pulling her hand away from her mouth. "By all means, the students would love to see the porcelain."
Eddy slid up beside Lea and said, "That painting must be worth a fortune, eh?"
Lea shrugged. "Not as much as a Manet."
Eddy frowned. "You mean Monet."
"No. I mean Manet. Fdouard Manet."
Grinning, Lea went to stand next to Mme Forbin, who had again taken off her glasses to look more closely at the porcelain. A few of the students were leaning on the plexiglass case, and M Formentin asked them to step back. He took out a clean white cotton cloth from his jacket pocket and began wiping the case as he spoke. "These porcelain dessert plates are one of the pride and joys of mine . . . of the museum. Mme Quentin-Savary used this service right up until her death in 1900. They were made at the porcelain factory in Sevres, just south of the capital."
Lea nodded. She had been to that museum with Marine Bonnet and her mother. She looked down at the dozen or so plates, each one with a hand-painted fruit in its center: wild strawberries, fat purple plums, walnuts in their fuzzy green shells, and almost-translucent purple grapes. Some of the other students were pointing and muttering names of fruits, and it quickly became a competition to see who could identify each fruit the fastest. M Formentin stepped back a tiny bit, his arms folded across his chest and a satisfied grin on his flushed face. He reminded her of a television character from a show her parents watched: a short, fastidious Belgian who walked with tiny footsteps, like a penguin.
"Et maintenant," M Formentin announced with a dramatic flourish of his right hand, files bustes des personnages illustres d'Aix . . . notre chere ville." He pointed toward the far corner of the room and began walking there as the students slowly followed.
Lea couldn't see that far, as she was stuck at the back of the group. Was it a bust of Cezanne? She hoped so. Or Zola? Lßa was proud that she had gotten into the music program at Mignet, a school that boasted such illustrious alumni as the famous painter and his best friend the writer, although in their day Mignet had been a high school. Her parents, too, were over the moon when she was admitted after an agonizing choral audition.
Lea looked to her left and there was Alexandra, looking down at the dessert plates. Lea lifted up her cell phone and quickly took a photo. Lea looked at Alexandra and whispered, "Isn't this a cool museum?"
"Totally," Alexandra replied.
Lea giggled and gave her a thumbs-up. Alexandra smiled, happy to have a friend at last, even if Lea was the other geek in the class. Lea Paulik looked young for her age, but her intelligence and musical talents set her apart. "Lea's on a different planet," one of their fellow students once remarked. But if Lea Paulik was on a different planet, that only made her even more interesting. She was smart and didn't hide it, and Alexandra admired that. Plus, Lea's father was a police commissioner, which was just about the coolest job on the planet.
"Et voilˆ!" M Formentin said, barely containing his excitement about the first bust.
Lea's face fell in disappointment. It was neither Cezanne nor Zola, both of which she could have picked out.
Alexandra raised her arm in the air.
"And who is it, Alexandra?" Mme Forbin asked.
"Mirabeau!" Alexandra answered, almost breathless with excitement.
Lea smiled and looked at the bust; the man's fat head, his pockmarked skin. He was wearing one of those big wigs with rolls of sausage curls and a fancy frilly shirt under a vest with three big buttons. But despite the bad skin and stupid wig, he looked scary in a way. Formidable.
"C'est exacte!" M Formentin replied.
"It's in terra-cotta," Mme Forbin said. "Not marble."
"Ah, oui," M Formentin said, sighing with a slight air of apology. "The marble version is in the Louvre."
"In the nation's capital!" Eddy said.
Again, Lea laughed despite herself. Referring to Paris as "the capital" was old-fashioned. Her parents didn't like that expression, "As if there are no other cities in France!" her father would complain. "As if all life revolves around Paris," her mother would add.
"Ah, oui," M Formentin said again with another sigh, disregarding, or not noticing, Eddy's sarcasm. He went on. "But one thing the Louvre doesn't have is this . . ." He gestured for the students to follow him into another, smaller room. He did his penguin walk while the students followed, trying not to laugh.
It was darker here: The walls were a deep red and the only lighting was a chandelier that hung low over a very long polished wooden table. "A feast for your eyes," M Formentin said. "A complete set of porcelain-again from Sevres-each plate featuring a different French château."
"Why isn't it under a glass case?" one of the students asked.
M Formentin puffed up his chest. "On certain special days, such as your visit today, I set the table with this exquisite service, just as Mme Quentin-Savary would have done."
"More likely the servants would have done," whispered Lea to Alexandra. Alexandra nodded in agreement while their classmates began a competitive guessing game with the plates.
"Villandry," one said, pointing to a plate whose château was surrounded by perfectly geometrical gardens with clipped hedges.
"Very good, Isabelle," Mme Forbin said. "And that one?" she asked, pointing to a plate whose château spanned a river.
"Chenonceau!" Alexandra answered. "The river is the Cher."
"And who was its most famous owner?" Mme Forbin asked.
"Henri II," Lea replied.
"That's right," Mme Forbin said. "He gave it to-"
"Sa favorite!" Eddy cried out.
Mme Forbin said, "His mistress. Correct. Next time raise your hand, Eddy. And what was her name?"
Eddy shifted from foot to foot and scratched his forehead in such an exaggerated way that everyone laughed.
A quiet girl named Melanie raised her hand, which made Lea happy. Lea also knew the answer, but she didn't want to be the one answering all the time because then people would avoid her, as most of them did Alexandra.
"Diane de Poitiers," Melanie said.
This time it was their guide, the funny little man, who clapped his hands in delight. "Excellent!" he said.
By the time they left twenty minutes later, Lea was sorry to say goodbye to M Formentin and the Musee Quentin-Savary. When she finished school and started working, she wanted a job she loved-not to become rich so that she could buy beautiful things, as Mme Quentin-Savary had done, but so that she could be proud of her work, and not bored. Like M Formentin, who obviously loved his job. And Mme Forbin, who, it seemed to Lea, loved hers most of the time.
Friday, April 20
I'd forgotten how beautiful this drive is," Marine said to her best friend, Sylvie. They were heading south on the highway between Aix and the coast, and Marine was craning her head so that she could better see the hills to her right. They were covered in garigue that was brighter than usual because it had rained so much that spring.
"Oui, c'est vrai," Sylvie mumbled in agreement, signaling to pass a slow-moving truck. "How are you feeling today?"
"Oh, I'm fine," Marine said, smiling. "It was really just those first three months, you know. I was constantly tired."
Sylvie shifted gears as they climbed the mountain. "Get ready for the view," she said.
Marine did as she was instructed and looked out of the passenger window. She dared not move, as she knew that she'd only have the view for a few seconds. Soon she saw the sheltered bay of Cassis and caught her breath. "The water is sapphire blue and emerald green," she said.
"We're lucky it's so sunny today, after all that rain."
"Look at the vineyards," Marine continued. "How they sweep down the mountain and almost slide straight into downtown Cassis. The contrast is amazing . . . the green blue sea, the orderly rows of vineyards, and the bright white rock of the mountaintops."
"It really is a paradise."
"Yes, that's why I never go in summer. Parking nightmare!"
Sylvie laughed. "Give me La Ciotat any day."
"I agree," Marine said. "The underdog. City of dockers."
"And dockers' wives and children."
Marine smiled. "You sound like my mother."
"How are your parents?" Sylvie asked.
"They're both well, thanks," Marine answered. "Maman busies herself with various theological committees and the academic publishing houses where she's a board member. At least I assume she's still a board member." She looked out of the window and smiled. "Maybe she just shows up at the meetings, and they don't protest as they're afraid to get rid of her-"
"Perfect description of Florence Bonnet," Sylvie said, laughing. "And your dad?"
"He loves being retired from his general practice," Marine said. "He sometimes goes to medical conferences but only if they're in Europe. Neither of my parents have ever been great travelers. And he gardens."
"Sounds like a nice life," Sylvie said as she slowed the car down and they exited the highway.
"Even if the ship-building industry has gone bust, those cranes are a constant reminder of the huge ships that were built here," Marine said as the tall cranes that once lifted and lowered heavy metal ships' parts came into view. They looked like monstrous prehistoric birds. "I hope La Ciotat never gets rid of them."
"They won't," Sylvie said. "The cranes are back in use. I just read in Le Monde that La Ciotat is now advertising her shipyards as the place to get your super-yacht repaired and furnished."
"That's a brilliant idea."
"Yeah, the infrastructure is already in place, and there are so many skilled boat workers here."
"And look," Marine said as they drove downhill and into town, "the sea here is just as beautiful as in Cassis."
Sylvie turned the car onto one of La Ciotat's main streets and changed the subject. "Your parents must be so excited about the baby."
Marine shrugged and looked out of the side window. "I guess."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, they don't really say much. Antoine's father and his girlfriend, Rebecca, are a lot more excited than my parents."
Sylvie glanced at Marine. "Your parents have never been emotionally demonstrative. But they'll come around, you'll see, once the baby is born and your mother can talk its ear off."
Marine laughed, thankful that she was there, in La Ciotat, on a sunny day, with Sylvie. She was happy not to think about the baby for a few hours and to have to respond to Antoine's one million well-meaning questions a day about how she was feeling and if the baby was moving yet. "I'm looking forward to the conference," she said.
"That's great, because late-nineteenth-century Provencal art isn't everyone's thing," Sylvie said, pulling the car into a parking lot adjacent to the harbor. "But some of it is really interesting-precursors to the Impressionists, or to the transition period between them and the boring Academy stuff that went before."
"Painters like Jean-Baptiste Olive and Felix Ziem?"
"Of course you'd be able to list some names," Sylvie said, laughing, as she turned off the car's engine. "Is there anything you don't know?"
"Yes. I have no idea how a camera works, which is your specialty," Marine replied. "What's the theme of your talk today?"