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A Mystery in Provence
Toujours Dead, the third book in Susan Kiernan-Lewis' "Maggie Newbury" mystery sequence, unfortunately does not make one eager to read the first two in the series. The book begins crisply enough, with a murder scene (from 50 years ago) that is quite chilling. Kiernan-Lewis is obviously a talented writer capable of producing a truly gripping book if this scene is any indication of her talent. Having given us such a fantastic opening scene, however, she follows up with a kind of slow meandering along the French countryside surrounding a town called St-Buvard for a mind-numbing 150 pages during which nothing of true import happens. The author introduces some
characters and offers a lot of notes on wine-making, but no real mystery or suspense again shows up until after readers have endured these rather uninteresting 150 pages.
Maggie is the sleep-in girlfriend of Laurent Dernier, who has inherited a small estate in France, and she and Laurent have gone to claim his inheritance. Almost immediately they meet Connor MacKenzie, who comes over to their table and introduces himself as "sculptor, artiste, and lover extraordinaire." Kiernan-Lewis paints Connor as a rather obnoxious overbearing character but one whom, incomprehensibly, Maggie finds charming and likeable. Connor is a little too free and easy with sexual innuendo towards Maggie, but for some reason Laurent, out of character, doesn't seem to either pick up on it or care. Most of the characters introduced at this point are rather unlikable. Even Taylor, the young daughter of Winsor and Grace (two friends of Connor's) is nothing more than an obnoxious little brat. Winsor and Grace are trying to have another child (despite the horror of Taylor) to perhaps, as Grace contemplates, "get it right" the second time. She is having difficulty getting pregnant. Given her "success" with Taylor, one hopes she does not get over that difficulty.
Connor has gotten one of the town's young girls, Babette, pregnant, and talk about getting an abortion is all rather flippant. Connor is a spoiled rich kid with a rather high opinion of himself and with little to make the reader like him, yet Maggie is charmed. One must question Maggie's judgment.
In fact, we must question it more than once. Maggie frankly doesn't behave rationally at times. At one point, a gypsy named Gaston Lasalle literally collides with Maggie on the sidewalk and then berates her (after placing his hand on her breast) for having the audacity to be knocked down. Maggie decides, for some reason, not to mention this to Laurent. Okay, perhaps that decision can be justified, but then, when Gaston later reappears at her home and threatens her with rape, Maggie decides again not to tell either Laurent, who some townspeople believe is her husband, or the police:
"Or what, you stupid bitch?" Lasalle sneered, lifting the stick threateningly. Maggie backed away... "You will be telling your husband?"... "Your husband was not angry before, hein?" The dark gypsy made an obscene cupping motion to remind Maggie of their earlier run-in. "He still shakes my hand in the street, Madame," he said. "Perhaps he will thank Gaston to make love with you, eh?" He stood up and leaned toward Maggie. "Perhaps he will pay me to do it?"
The gypsy moments later smashes to bits two small terra cotta pots holding geraniums before leaving. What is Maggie's reaction to this unambiguous threat and the destruction of her property?
By the time Grace answered on the third ring, Maggie had convinced herself that it hadn't really been much of an assault at all.
The man has already put his hands sexually upon her, now appears on her property, threatens to rape her and violently destroys her property, and Maggie doesn't think much of it?
Another scene strikes readers as both forced and false involving Gaston. Maggie, on the spur of the moment, "opts for wine" and has to go down into the wine cellar to get it. As in every bad B-movie, Gaston is there, waiting for her. The question a reader must ask is: How did he know Maggie was going to go to the wine cellar when she didn't know it herself minutes earlier? Perhaps he was going down there every day, waiting until she opted for wine?
The author too makes a bad literery choice in the way she writes a scene very near the final denouement of the book. This scene, which should be fast-paced, is slowed dramatically (and annoyingly) by having the characters speak French and then the author offering us the English translation:
"Je l'aimait," (she) said, almost in a whisper. I loved him.
The murder mystery, such as it is, is slight, and here, too, the motive of the killer seems forced. Susan Kiernan-Lewis has, as mentioned above, written two other "Maggie Newberry" books, one of which won a National Writer's Association Award. One can only assume it was much superior to this latest entry in the series.
"Il n'en valait pas la peine," Maggie replied. He was never worth it.
"Il m'aimait," the woman said in a moan. He loved me.
© 2001 by Mary B. Stuart for Curled Up With a Good Book