Deadly Slipper
Michelle Wan
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Deadly Slipper
Michelle Wan
320 pages
May 2006
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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A young woman backpacking in the Dordogne Forest in southwestern France stumbles upon a remarkable group of orchids in bloom, the centerpiece a rare species of orchid never before identified in this area. Thrilled, she photographs the blooms, in close-up and from a distance, establishing the provenance of the plants. The forest is absolutely still when the woman hears a footstep...

Nineteen years later, Mara Dunn arrives on Julian Wood’s doorstep. Armed with only the poorly-exposed film and a single print of a pigeonnier (a dovecote), Mara enlists Julian’s aid in locating the orchids her sister Bedie photographed, the only point of reference for Mara’s search. A Canadian interior decorator, Mara has lived in the region for the last few years, drawn subconsciously to the scene of Bedie’s earlier disappearance.

Wood is a bachelor, botanical aficionado and orchidologist, one of many such experts in this area of the French countryside. Knowledgeable if taciturn, Wood cultivates his own orchids as well as other botanical projects from which he makes a decent living. Reluctantly, Julian agrees to help Mara, tempted by the potential coup in the world of horticulture.

The countryside is filled with eccentrics, not the least of whom is Julian himself, a man both irritated and excited by Mara’s intense personality. Mara wants to learn more about the old woman, La Binette, and her son, Vrac, who reside on a farm near the pigeonnier in Bedie’s photographs, but is unable to interest their neighbors, the Sauvignac’s. Mara is certain La Binette knows more than she is telling.

Mara and Julian scientifically approach what seems an impossible task, carefully mapping out a search area. Slowly progressing, Mara senses someone watching her; isolated in a stand of trees, she hears footsteps and begins to run, but the steps easily keep pace, the frightening pursuit foiled only by the appearance of a stranger, Alain Sauvignac, whose parents own the nearby estate. Such unnerving incidents distract Mara, increasing her anxiety. The forest is the key, but every time she goes there, it is with a familiar unease.

Luckily, Alain, recently returned from his travels to visit his ageing parents, is sympathetic to Mara’s plight, a welcome relief from Julian’s obsession with the Lady’s Slipper. Suddenly the very people she feels safe with are the ones Mara suspects; but Mara trusts her intuition more than anyone she has met and remains the outsider, warned that the French will close ranks if one of their own is threatened.

Finely detailed and researched, Deadly Slipper is a horticulturalist’s delight, revealing the inside story of orchidologist's endeavors and the quirky personalities of the French with their petty territorial skirmishes for notoriety. Balancing a healthy mix of heroes and villains, the author leads the reader on an intricate chase of bizarre characters and nefarious motives, as Mara draws closer to the heart of Bedie’s disappearance. The infamous Lady’s Slipper assumes a deadly presence, its rare beauty the key that unlocks a cunning murder.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Luan Gaines, 2005

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