07 Oct 2014
Murder on the Ile Sordou. By M.L. Longworth.
Mary Lou Longworth has been living in the south of France for 17 years. That is apparently long enough to populate her mystery series with enough French attitude to satisfy this wannabe tourist.
The fourth Antoine Verlaque novel, “Murder on the Ile Sordou” the examining magistrate and his law professor girlfriend Marine Bonnet are spending the week on a newly reopened hotel on an island off Marseilles. The guests on this isolated Mediterranean rock include Marine’s friend the free-spirited artist, a newly retired teacher and poet, a couple from America, and an arrogant, skirt-chasing French actor, his wife and her stepson. Throw in the couple who have mortgaged their future on the hotel, the manager with a shady past, the rising chef, the history-minded bartender and the inexperienced maid, and you have a long medley of French names to keep track of.
It’s a set-up for murder a la Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None,” but not for long. There’s only one murder, and the guests do not feel particularly threatened by the possibility of another. Verlaque calls in the police to cordon off the island and launches the investigation.
But before the murder, which takes place about a third of the way in, we’re treated to a slow build-up. Like P.D. James, whom she admires, Longworth takes her time, letting us get to know the guests and staff and enjoy relaxing on a sunny island resort where the hardest question is which wine to enjoy with the coming meal. She also takes us into the history of each character. Their stories have the flavor of real life, with its struggles and small victories, and although one is a murderer, no one is a serial killer, or manic-depressive, or suicidal.
There are other byways to follow. There’s the island’s lighthouse keeper, the eccentric old man with a name reminiscent of “The Tempest”: Prosper Buffa. The young maid, Marie-Therese, learns to cope with the routines and rules of her new job, and Hugo Sammut, the boatman and gardener, finds himself in trouble while carrying on an affair with one of the guests.I don’t know how accurate the French character is represented, but I felt nothing that contradicted what I’ve experienced before. These are lives being lived, and a murder just happens to be one of the events to live through, like a bathe in the sea or a dinner of sea bream braised in olive oil with lavender cookies and apricot tart for dessert. The mystery was like a moderate mid-priced wine: competent but with an unexpected finish. I knew early on who did it, but a twist in the story that I missed.
“Murder on the Ile Sordou” is for readers who want to savor a book that’s more interested in being there than in describing a puzzle that needs a solution.