I love Peter Mayle’s Provence books, where he details his life after moving there from England. He apparently also has a series of detective novels that focus on food and wine, a combination of two things I enjoy quite a bit, so I thought I’d give them a try.
Mayle’s a strong writer, and that does come through here, but the story itself was a bit silly. This follows Sam Settler, a once-thief now working as a private detective, as he tries to track down millions of dollars of stolen wine. I imagine his alliterative name is a throwback to Sam Spade and the golden era of detective fiction, but that’s really where the comparisons stop.
My main problem with this novel is that there’s just no reason at all to care. I think, in detective fiction, readers want to see the crime solved for the following reasons:
- Sympathy for the victim – The victim here, the wine collector, is portrayed as a complete douchbag. He’s an entertainment lawyer who treats everyone around him with contempt, who values impressing others above all else. You are meant to hate him from the first page of this novel.
- Seeking justice for the crime – The crime itself is serious, the theft of something worth millions, but it isn’t a murder. If the thief is never caught, the wine will just have a new owner, potentially even one that will appreciate it more. I supposed if you felt really strongly about wine collecting, the idea of this happening would sting, but I doubt most people would lose sleep over it.
- The detective’s life is threatened – In many detective or crime novels, the detective’s life may be at stake. They may need to solve the crime to prove themselves innocent or to bring down the criminals who may now be targeting them after getting involved. At the very least, it’s a crime from the past that went unsolved and has haunted them ever since. Sam is under no pressure in this. If he’s not investigating, he’s just having nice dinners or sightseeing.
- The detective’s livelihood is threatened – Most detective or crime fiction protagonists need to solve these cases in order to continue paying rent, whether that’s keeping their job in the police force or just making money as a private consultant. They need to get paid. Sam Settler is independently wealthy from his previous life of crime, so he really doesn’t need to solve this. He travels to France with a first class plane ticket and eats caviar multiple times.
Mayle did try to get creative with the ending of this novel, but it instead just felt ridiculous. The rich man who stole the wine is a nice guy, which they determine by his reputation and having met him for five minutes, so instead of turning him in they decided to commit a crime themselves and re-steal the bottles of wine, some of which may or may not have been stolen.
One of Sam’s partners in the theft is a journalist, so the plan was to leave the wine somewhere and have the journalist find it through an anonymous tip, thus finding the stolen goods, returning them to their owner, taking the blame off the nice rich man, and providing a great story to publish.
Not only do they put themselves at risk to protect someone they met for five minutes, but they hide the wine on land the journalist’s family owns, and no one brings this up as being a bad idea. I’m assuming the sequel will take place in prison, because I don’t understand how the police wouldn’t make that connection.
It feels a bit weird reading someone’s fiction when you know them for their non-fiction. I imagine it feels a bit like watching a friend act on stage for the first time, making it harder to see the character rather than the actor, but it didn’t take too long to adjust. As I said, Mayle is a very good writer. I especially enjoyed any scene in which the characters were eating. This feels like food travel writing with a fictional plot thrown in, which I would absolutely love if it was done well.
If you’re the sort of person that complains about George R.R. Martin spending too much time describing food, I’d avoid this. Even though I was disappointed with the plot, I might give the next book a try. He might have just been finding his footing with this one, and I really want a detective series full of food and travel writing.