"Cross-pollinates Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief with Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence."—The Washington Post Book World on Deadly Slipper
In this electrifying third installment of the highly acclaimed Death in the Dordogne series, Mara Dunn and Julian Wood are living together in an uneasy, on-and-off way—so uneasy that each begins to wonder if they are really meant to be together. But when Julian, with his unerring understanding of the orchidlover's mind, thinks he has found the link between a killer and a local murder, one of them might lose the other—permanently.
About the Author
A Twist of Orchids is MICHELLE WAN's third novel in the Death in the Dordogne series; previous titles include Deadly Slipper and The Orchid Shroud. She lives in Ontario, Canada.
Michelle Wan is the author of the Death in the Dordogne series, including Deadly Slipper, The Orchid Shroud and A Twist of Orchids. She lives in Ontario, Canada.
Read an Excerpt
In the pre-dawn light, the ruin of the Temple of Vesunna rose as a shadowy hulk. Relic of a time when France was an outpost of the Roman Empire, it stood in a circle of parkland in the middle of Périgueux, departmental capital of the Dordogne. An empty pop can, wind-driven, skittered along its base. The can bounced and clattered down an incline to land on a walkway where it went careening off again, singing its hollow, tinny song. Tumbling and spinning, it eventually came to rest against a pair of boots.
The boots, badly scuffed, pointed toe-down into the ground. Bare expanses of ankle above the boots showed that their wearer, a man, was without socks. Perhaps he owned no socks, or perhaps he had dressed in a hurry. He wore jeans and a denim jacket and lay on his stomach on the walkway, legs at a slightly higher level than his head. His arms were bent at the elbows, hands cupping, as if protectively, the sides of his face. A careful observer would have noted that the man’s clothes were frozen, that water had leaked from his mouth as he lay in this position, and that a small, icy pool of it had collected in a stony depression beneath his chin. An even more careful observer would have seen that the man’s nostrils were filled with dark vegetative matter, like soil, as if the very earth had risen up to stop his breath.
At this early hour, the parkland surrounding the temple was still. Pigeons, roosting high in the broken masonry, slept. The pop can remained, rocking gently against the obstacle against which it had come to lodge. Until another violent gust of wind sent it dancing on its way.
• 1 • The young man was anexoticism, a flamboyant figure against the mid-March backdrop of a small-town street market in southwestern France. He was dressed in an elaborately embroidered saffron-yellow vest worn open over a long white cotton robe. His hips were draped in a wide, colorfully striped sash, his feet clad in bright red shoes with pompoms at the toes. A length of green silk was twisted around his neck and knotted fancifully at the front. A red cap sat like an overturned flowerpot on his black, curly head.
As if his outfit were not remarkable enough, the young man was strapped to a large, chased brass and silver urn. Or rather, in the manner of traditional Turkish salep sellers, it was strapped to him, secured to his back by way of a diagonal sling that passed over his right shoulder and under his left armpit. The urn narrowed at the neck before swelling out again into an oriental cupola that rose behind him like a second head. The spout of the urn, long and curved, was hooked under his right arm. A faint swirl of steam escaped from its ornate beak. A circular metal tray attached to the young man’s waist held Styrofoam cups.
“Hadi og˘lum daha canlı¯ bag˘ir, Kazı¯m. Orda korkuluk gibi duruyorsun . . .” urged a large, middle-aged, mustachioed man in Turkish. He stood nearby before a bulwark of spices and foodstuffs from Anatolia, homemade baklava and glistening dolmas at two euros fifty each. These articles were equally out of place among the stands filled with the usual offerings: root vegetables, bread, baskets of eggs, loops of sausages, walnuts, farm-cured hams, cheeses, fish, tubs of honey, and bottles of dark fruit wine. Flattened duck carcasses, picturesquely called “overcoats,” shared display space with plucked chickens that lay heads dangling, feet crossed. What the man, Osman Ismet, said was: “Put some life into it, Kazim. You’re standing there like a scarecrow. How do you expect to get their attention like that? Drum up business, can’t you? Do your spiel. A real salepar’s got to have a spiel,” and so on. The Turk’s mustache flowed magnificent as a stallion’s mane on his upper lip. Kazim shot Osman, who was his father, a bitter look and muttered something, also in Turkish, the general import of which was: “This was your stupid idea. You do the spiel. I’m freezing my ass off.”
It was true. Kazim’s face was pinched with cold, despite the fact that under his getup he wore a second set of clothing. The skirt and sleeves of his robe snapped and fluttered in the wind, exposing banal glimpses of frayed sweater cuffs, faded blue jeans, and gray wool socks.
“Watch your tongue,” the father reprimanded, prodding the son forward into the path of shoppers who filled the central square of the town. “Show some respect.”
It was getting on for noon, and the market was beginning to wind down. People, loaded with purchases, were drifting away. Some of the vendors were already closing up their stalls. Business for the Turks had been slow all morning. Soon it would be time for them to pack up as well.
Sullenly, ironically, and in French, Kazim began to call out: “Okay, folks! Here it is! All the way from Istanbul, the Aphrodisiac of Sultans!” He said it, emphasizing each syllable: “Aff-ro-dee-zee-ack of Sul-taaaans!” His dark eyes flicked glumly over the slowly moving throng, focused momentarily on the buildings on the side of the square opposite his family’s stall, took in the steep stairway leading up to the porch of the Two Sisters Restaurant, and swept on.
“Good, good,” encouraged Osman Ismet. “Aphrodisiac. That always gets their attention.”
And indeed, some shoppers, attracted by the young man’s cry, were stopping, willing to be momentarily amused, because street markets in the Dordogne, indeed everywhere in France, were always a form of entertainment as well as commerce. Kazim’s eyes continued to roam while his mouth formed a version of the prescribed salepar’s pitch:
“Got the wilts? A slurp of Elan will perk you up. Do wonders for the little woman, too. Made with a secret ingredient from a centuries-old formula. You don’t think Scheherazade’s old man kept it up for a thousand and one nights without a little help, do you? Here it is, folks. Elan, the drink of drinks. Three euros a cup, or buy a pack of powder mix for twelve, make it at home, the Viagra of Sultans . . .”
A quartet of teenage girls gathered around him, giggling. A middle-aged couple, trundling a wire shopping cart laden with vegetables, baguettes, and a spit-roasted chicken, paused. Moving toward him through the thinning crowd, like a galleon in full sail, came a big man in a green-and-brown checked overcoat. He was accompanied by a thin man dressed in black. The thin man’s face was as narrow and gleaming as the blade of a knife. A pair of gendarmes strolled up from the opposite direction. Kazim took in the man in the overcoat and his companion as well as the approaching gendarmes. He bent forward swiftly, causing the spout of his urn to give forth a stream of hot, creamy liquid that he caught somewhat inexpertly in a Styrofoam cup.
“Voilà, monsieur.” He shoved the cup into the hands of a fat fellow in a black beret and a bulky zip-up sweater who happened to be passing. “Free to you. Special promotional offer.”
The fellow, a pig farmer from Saint-Avit-Sénieur, sniffed it suspiciously. “What is it?”
“Something you’ll thank me for. Old fart like you could use a stand-up-and-salute,” said Kazim the salepar very loudly, to the laughter of some bystanders. Jeeringly, he addressed them at large: “You French are all alike. Don’t know what you keep in your pants.”
“What the hell–” objected the old fart at the same moment that the father, mustache leaping, hissed in Turkish, “Are you crazy? That’s no way to talk to customers. What’s gotten into you?”
“Watch your mouth, shithead Arab,” yelled a tough-looking, acned youth.
“Yeah,” yelled a couple of his mates.
Kazim’s dark eyes singled out the pockmarked face. “You call me a shithead, you come and talk to me. Or don’t you have the guts?”
“I’ll send you back where you came from, minus something, sale bougne,” offered Pockmarks, surging forward. The crowd, interested in a fight, surged with him. More people hurried over to catch the action. Vendors left their stalls.
Kazim, the erstwhile salepar, slipped swiftly out of his harness. The heavy urn dropped with a clang to the ground, rolled, trailing a sudsy stream of Elan, and came to a stop against one of the wooden legs of the table bearing the family’s wares.
“Filthy terrorist!” another voice shrilled.
The gendarmes, alerted by the hubbub, pushed through the growing crowd of people.
“Please! Please!” shouted the father, switching to heavily accented French. He stood arms and legs akimbo before his minor international enterprise. “Stop. I beg you. Is no way to talk. We are people of peace–”
At that point, his son crashed into him, propelled by the acned tough and his two mates. The Turk himself was driven backwards onto his stand. It collapsed beneath the combined weight of the five men in a rain of spices, olives, baklava, dolmas, stuffed peppers, and paper packets containing the Aphrodisiac
“Break it up!” yelled the gendarmes, wading in to quell the brawl.
On his back, piled atop his father, Kazim planted a pompommed shoe in the stomach of the first gendarme.
Because he was the only one looking up, Kazim alone saw the woman fall from the restaurant porch. She came flying at a slant down the diagonal of the stairway, arms outstretched, mouth straining open like an avenging djinn.
• 2 • Madame Chapoulie, hurrying out of her flower shop to see what the commotion in the square was all about, nearly tripped over the body of the old woman lying at the bottom of the Two Sisters’ stairs.
“Mon Dieu!” screamed the florist, terrified by the thin sound that came from the woman’s gaping mouth, by the staring eyes that already seemed to be taking on an awful vacancy. “Au secours!”
Her cries drew people from the fight. By then the gendarmes had things more or less under control anyway. The crowd flowed out of the square toward the hysterical florist. The gendarme who had been kicked came, dragging Kazim with him; the other followed with the pimply-faced youth in tow. The youth’s mates had seized the opportunity to run for it. The first gendarme let go of Kazim to check for a pulse in the fallen woman’s neck. Kazim obliged the officer by sticking close. The other gendarme held on to his captive. He took in the position of the body, the steepness of the flight of eighteen stone steps that rose above it, and observed: “Must have missed her footing.”
It was the general consensus. The restaurant spanned the upper stories of a pair of houses that in former times had been owned by two English sisters, the reason that the restaurant’s name was rendered in English rather than French. The houses were separated by a narrow alley and bridged at the top by an elevated porch. In summertime, the porch was a pleasant spot for a meal or a drink. In winter, except for waiters hurrying from one house to the other–that is, one part of the restaurant to the other–or customers crossing to use the toilets located on the right-hand side, it was deserted.
“It’s those damned steps,” a man muttered, and there were murmurs of agreement. “She must have been distracted by the fight at the Turkish stall and tripped.”
“Should have used the cage,” someone else said, referring to an old-fashioned elevator that crawled up and down the back exterior of the restaurant. It doubled as a goods lift and a means of conveying those not inclined to use the stairs, which was the majority of customers, since parking was also around the back.
Kazim’s gendarme stood up. He looked grave. “I’m afraid she’s had it.” He pulled out his cellphone and began punching numbers.
• The death was reported on the eight o’clock news that night: Amélie Gaillard, eighty-five years old, wife of Joseph, resident of the hamlet of Ecoute-la-Pluie. Cause of death: a massive cerebral hemorrhage caused by an accidental fall. There was some discussion of the condition of the Two Sisters’ stairs, which were in fact sound and equipped with a sturdy handrail. The restaurant owner was interviewed. “We absolutely urge patrons to use the elevator,” he declared.
Amélie’s death, however, was overshadowed by the evening’s main story. In the early hours of the morning, Périgueux municipal workers had discovered the body of an unidentified male near the Temple of Vesunna. The man was described as of European type, brown hair, blue eyes, 180 centimeters tall, weighing 78 kilograms, and between thirty-five and forty years of age. Needle marks in his arm tagged him as an intravenous drug user and possibly a petty pusher.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This third mystery in the series is a rather convoluted tale that all makes sense at the end of the book. I did not like it as well as the first two but was interested enough to continue. The relationship between Mara and Julian continues to evolve. The setting in Dordogne in France is interesting and Mara is a french-canadian from Quebec who has settled there.
In Dordgone, France, English orchid expert Julian Wood and French-Canadian interior designer Mara Dunn love one another but struggle with relational accommodations as both are set in their ways. Especially troublesome to Mara is Julian's obsessive annual hunt for the rare Lady's Slipper orchid. As the couple struggles with compromise, Kazim, son of Turkish sweet shop bakery owners, sees a woman fall to her death from the balcony of the Two Sisters restaurant. Mara is shocked with her neighbor octogenarian Amelie Gaillard's dying from what everyone assumes was an accident, but even more shocking is that the victim's daughter Christine failed to come to the funeral or assist her Parkinson's ailing dad Joseph with his grief. Soon afterward, Kazim is missing and his parents plead with Julian to search for him. As Mara looks into Galliard family secrets, she finds herself involved with the rhyming thefts while Julian's investigation has him allied with a drug dealer. The third Death in Dordgone amateur sleuth mystery (see Deadly Slipper and The Orchid Shroud) is an enjoyable dueling investigative tale. The lead couple's personal issues as a new middle aged couple trying to adapt to living with a lover are amusing though extremely minor especially compared with the deep look at Muslims living in France. Fans of French modern day mysteries will enjoy A Twist of Orchids as neither of the lead couple finds their inquiry as simple as expected; almost as hard as they discover living with another adult. Harriet Klausner
Wan's writing style is fine. Fine, but no more. She can write well enough to get an engaging-enough story across to a reader, but she is not particularly imaginative. A recurring passing thought, while reading the book, was that Wan must have had a spreadsheet somewhere that described each character, each plot line and how each character could fit into as many story-lines as possible so that each character had relevance and continuity within the plot. Don't get me wrong, I think all characters should play a meaningful role in a novel, but the effort that goes into making a story well balanced and unified should be invisible. Wan's efforts appear just under the veneer of her story, which is too bad.
Perhaps the largest complaint is the seriously lame relationship (with accompanying _more_ seriously lame inner dialogue) between the two main characters. I mean, who cares if he's going to call? Who cares if he gets along with the maid? I sure don't. I understand that this was likely supposed to make the characters more human, but it just made them seem more adolescent.
Now, please don't take this to mean that I did not enjoy this book. It was plenty good for a weekend's reading and it didn't leave me particularly disappointed. It just isn't a great book. Reasonably interesting characters and descriptive scenes that gave me a feel for the environment helped keep me turning the pages.
When I finished the book, my main thought was something like, "Well, it wasn't exactly a waste of my time, but I'll probably forget all about it in a week or two." I'll probably give my copy to a friend with the disclaimer that it's not a great book, but that it's better than watching TV and there's one great character worth meeting (a widower suffering from Parkinson's at the quiet center of a secondary plot).