Dotted by medieval towns dating back to Roman times, filled with rolling hills of lavender and herbs, alive with the sun-drenched colors of ochre, azure, and sienna, Provence has long inspired creative minds. This is Cézanne’s country, and his birthplace, Aix-en-Provence, is the setting of M. L. Longworth’s debut novel, Death at the Château Bremont.
The Mistral winds have returned, and with their arrival, a murderer will strike. Residents of Aix are shocked by the sudden death of Étienne Bremont, scion of a noble family. A filmmaker, Étienne falls to his death from an attic window of his family’s chateau. We, the readers, know it is murder. “He heard a rushing sound on the attic’s wooden floor and felt hands on his chest. The mistral blew around his body as he fell.”
To others, the unfortunate death appears as nothing more than an accident. Yet many express doubts that Étienne would fall so easily. “He must have opened that window thousands of times.” Fewer still believe it a suicide. Yet none are willing to acknowledge it might be murder, except for magistrate Antoine Verlaque.
A vital clue will be discovered when Verlaque invites Marine Bonnet to visit the Chateau Bremont. Marine, a law professor and Verlaque’s ex-girlfriend, grew up with the Bremont boys. As children are wont to do, she and Étienne played silly games in the attic, sometimes with Étienne’s brother, François, and the servant’s children, Cosette and Jean-Claude. Marine recalls an old Louis Vuitton suitcase that the children were never to touch. After Étienne’s death, however, the suitcase is found empty.
Marine will be drawn into helping Verlaque with his investigations that will take them to Marseilles and the Côte d’Azur where both Bremont brothers had ties. Étienne had produced a film about the Corsican mafia, and François worked for a modeling agency that may very well be a front for a prostitution ring run by the Russian mafia.
Verlaque works “on a hunch, roughly based on a few childhood souvenirs and a bit of film footage.” Does Bremont’s death tie into the Coriscan mafia responsible for high crime in Marseilles or would it be the Russian mafia who supply models to François in the Côte d’Azur?
The mystery becomes very much a story about two brothers. “It’s as if one brother received all the good and the other all the bad,” remarks one character. But which brother is the bad one?
Beacuse Etienne’s death isn’t considered truly suspicious, the mystery stalls somewhat until another death at the family Chateau occurs. Then Verlaque and Marine begin to piece together the threads that will unravel who killed who.
Death at the Château Bremont, like a fine wine, is worth savoring. The story paints a portrait of the region, and the characters, especially Verlaque and Marine, are fleshed out and well-drawn. The novel’s only real weakness is its use of expository passages detailing much backstory in the early chapters before readers have truly become invested in the story. Chapter Seven, in particular, feels oddly like an interlude. Here, some eighty odd pages in, Verlaque attends a party. The Drinking, smoking, and idle chatter illustrates a slice of Provençal life, but it doesn’t really further the plot. The pacing and story coalesce far better after this point.
Ultimately, I find these are characters worth revisiting.
Author Longworth is an expatriate who has lived in the Provence region since 1997. She’s written articles about Provence for various publications, including The Washington Post and Bon Appétit. To date, Death at the Château Bremont is the first of three novels featuring Verlaque and Bonnet. The third book is due out in mid-2013. For more about Longworth and her Verlaque & Bonnet mysteries, visit her website.