The Mystery of the Lost Cézanne: A Verlaque and Bonnet Mystery by M. L. Longworth (New York: Penguin Books, 2015. 320 pp)

M. L. Longworth is the author of the Verlaque and Bonnet mystery series set in Southern France. She has lived in France for over seventeen years and splits her time between Aix-en-Provence, where she writes, and Paris, where she teaches writing at New York University’s Paris campus.

Starting from the Middle Now We’re Here

My favorite television critic, Todd VanDerWerff, often bangs the drum of starting a television series at any point. If you hear a show gets going in the third season, don’t waste time with the preliminary seasons just to get to the good stuff. You’ll be able to discern character connections and plot points through exposition. Your time is valuable, so watch what you want to watch, when you want to watch it.

Despite this advice, I’ve never been one to follow it. I still haven’t jumped into The Wire, more or less because I want to watch it all, and that’s going to take some time. I know it will be good, but I need more time.

Mystery Time

The Mystery of the Lost Cézanne, however, provides an ample opportunity to test Todd’s premise. The book is an installment in a mystery series starring a French judge, Antoine Verlaque, and his girlfriend/law professor, Marine Bonnet.

Set in Aix-en-Provence, the rural French town and historical residence of Paul Cézanne, the central mystery surrounds this mythic figure.

“Just mention that famous painter’s name and people’s knees go weak, especially here, in his hometown. We all want a piece of Paul Cézanne” (29).

The sleepy town becomes agitated when the resident at Cézanne’s former apartment meets an untimely demise soon after he raves about finding an undiscovered Cézanne painting.

Responding to a concerned neighbor, Verlaque discovers the body, and an unlikely intruder, Dr. Rebecca Schultz, an African-American art historian with a particular affinity for Cézanne. Clearly, she becomes suspect one. But that would be too easy a story.

“And if you were a black Jewish woman who had worked all her life to finally get a white Anglo-Saxon man’s job, and you were caught trespassing and entering where there had just been a murder, you, too, would have thought twice before deciding to phone for help instead of running straight out the door” (105).

Who killed this poor resident? And was such a crime done for an original work of art? Or a forgery?

A Little Too French

The Mystery of the Lost Cézanne whips along at a brisk pace and represents an easy read, but the overall feeling around the story lacks. Aside from a quick conclusion that felt rushed an unincorporated to the story as a whole, I found the style at times to be a little off.

Too often, Longworth slides between English and French to remind the reader of the location. Even if it brings the setting to life, I found reading it jarring. If I knew French better, perhaps the switches wouldn’t bother me as much, but the use of French distracted me, even when I knew what was said. Consider this example:

“He paused. ‘I’m not sure I believe in it anymore.’
Oh mon dieu!
‘You can say that again,’ Anatole said, trying to smile” (127).

But, The Mystery of the Lost Cézanne succeeds in the one phase I most required. I was able to jump into an anthologized story and follow it reasonably well without much previous background. The characters made sense; the story engaged. I will consider further methods of breaking from sequential form.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

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