Book Review: Death In Provence by Serena Kent

The first entry in a clever, lighthearted mystery series set in modern Provence—a delightful blend of Agatha Christie and Peter Mayle—featuring the irrepressible Penelope Kite, a young-at-heart divorcee with a knack for stumbling across dead bodies.

It’s love at first sight when Penelope Kite sees Le Chant d’Eau—The Song of Water—the stone farmhouse tucked high in the hills above the Luberon valley, complete with a garden, swimming pool, and sweeping mountain vistas. For years, Penelope put her unfaithful ex-husband and her ungrateful stepchildren first. Since taking early retirement from her job in forensics at the Home Office in England, she’s been an unpaid babysitter and chauffeur for her grandchildren. Now, she’s going to start living for herself. Though her dream house needs major renovations, Penelope impulsively buys the property and moves to St. Merlot.

But Penelope’s daydreams of an adventurous life in Provence didn’t include finding a corpse floating face down in her swimming pool. The discovery of the dead man plunges her headlong into a Provençal stew of intrigue and lingering resentments simmering beneath the deceptively sunny village. Having worked in the forensics office, Penelope knows a thing or two about murder investigations. To find answers, she must carefully navigate between her seemingly ubiquitous, supercilious (and enviously chic) estate agent, the disdainful chief of police, and the devilishly handsome mayor—even as she finds herself tempted by all the delicacies the region has to offer. Thank goodness her old friend Frankie is just a flight away . . . and that Penelope is not quite as naïve as her new neighbours in St. Merlot believe.

Set against the exquisite backdrop of Provence, steeped in history, atmosphere, and secrets, Death in Provence introduces an irresistible heroine and a delightful new mystery series.

This makes a change in my “English woman moves to romantic European country” novels, where I usually go for ones based in Italy, so it took me a while to get used to this being set in France.

So: Penelope, recently divorced and recently retired, falls in love with a run down house, buys it on the spur of the moment (partly because she’s fed up with her step-children’s bratty children), and moves in.  Things dont go according to plan, with some of the locals not wanting someone foreign to the area coming in, some of the older gents dont like certain women disrupting their lives (especially women who have experience in forensics finding dead bodies in their swimming pools and challenging investigations); there are still long held grudges about what happened during and immediately after WW2.

However, Penelope becomes sort-of-friends with her chic estate agent (possibility of them becoming investigating partners in future books) and settling in is helped by the arrival of her friend Frankie, who not only knows a thing or two about house renovations, but also has a hitherto unknown ability to speak fluent French (and an ability to down a remarkable amount of wine). Investigations drag on, Penelope begins to settle in and make herself known to the locals, and then there are more murders and threats, culminating in Penelope being in danger herself from a most unexpected source.

In short, an interesting but light hearted crime novel and I would certainly look for further books in this series!

#BookReview: Versailles by Elizabeth Massie

versailes bookreview

Versailles, 1667. Louis XIV is 28 years old and King of France. Still haunted by the memory of the Fronde, an opposition lead by the nobility against his father, Louis knows that he must tame the French aristocracy or risk being toppled by them. Louis conceives of the construction of Versailles – the greatest palace the world has ever seen – as a gilded prison designed to keep the nobles out of Paris and under his control. As his enemies circle, Louis XIV proves to be an extraordinary strategist, manipulative, and Machiavellian. There is nothing he will not do to ensure his sovereignty.

Meanwhile, court becomes a battlefield of tactical liaisons and private passions. Louis’ queen, Theresa of Austria, must fight to keep her husband’s attentions while he falls under the spell of his powerful mistress, the sister of the King of England. As tensions rise, Versailles proves to be more than a palace, it is a labyrinth of treason and hushed secrets, of political schemes and deadly conspiracies. It is a place of passion and death, love and vengeance.

From the publishers, Corvus Books, in exchange for a review.  This is the Novelisation of a new BBC2 Drama, and you can tell the show was done first, the book afterwards. There’s a particular style of presentation to this book – there’s lots of chopping and changing to scenes, few lasting more than a page. There’s lots within the book (and I suspect the show) designed to keep people entertained – lots of sex of most combinations allowed in a post-watershed BBC drama, intrigue, clothes, war, blackmail, scenery, parties etc.

As to the book itself – as expected from the writing style, it’s a fast read and easily got through. There’s not much in terms of exposition etc. It is the “book of the series” after all, and let’s not bog the story down with too much that’s not included in the show. I believe that the series is going to be 10 parts, and by the looks of things, this is the only book tie-in, so there’s a lot to cover.

Here’s a trailer for the BBC2 show that this relates to:


About this author

Elizabeth (Beth) Massie is a 2-time Bram Stoker Award winning author of horror/suspense/mystery novels and short fiction for adults. She also writes media-tie in fiction and historical fiction.  (I believe she has also written the 3 book series tied to The Tudors drama series)

#BookReview: Tainted Tokay by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noel Balen


Celebrating the success of the Cooker Guide, the Winemaker Detective Benjamin Cooker takes a cruise down the Danube with his wife and editor. Enjoying mythic Tokaji wines in Budapest, all is not what it seems. Meanwhile, Virgile must handle the business in Bordeaux, while Alexandrine is attacked.

From the publishers Le French Book, via Netgalley in exchange for a review.

Another shortish book about The Winemaker Detective and there’s a change of scene. Benjamin and Elizabeth are on holiday, taking a cruise down the Danube. It is at the expense of Benjamin’s publisher Claude who is travelling with his current girlfriend – a much younger, very sulky and hot headed woman, called Consuela who claims to be from Brazil.

Whilst sightseeing in Vienna, Benjamin and Elizabeth pick up a tour guide called Zoltan, who proves to be interesting, but dangerous. His flirtation with Consuela also threatens the relationship between her and Claude. The guide comes with them as they move forward on their trip, and the group have some problems, where both Claude and Elizabeth have their passports stolen.

Virgile remains at home and is charged with running things whilst Benjamin is away. Almost immediately, however, things go wrong, as Alexandrine (who runs the lab at the office) is viciously attacked and ends up in hospital. It doesn’t help that Didier – Virgil’s mortal enemy – keeps hanging around the hospital.  To date Alexandrine has ignored Virgile’s womanising reputation and it is initially thought that her attacker was her girlfriend Chloe. As the book progresses, it turns out that the reality is much more nasty and it takes much to persuade Alexandrine the issue is worth pursuing with the police.

Both issues get resolved in a satisfactory way, and Benjamin is reminded not to be on the bad side of his wife – for once in this series, she is involved in the resolution of Zoltan, the missing passports and how one of their guests on the river boat had ended up dead.

Whilst it’s nice to see that the book can be up to date (there are comments regarding the refugee issue as a result of the fighting in Syria), it’s a little disappointing that the supposedly gay Alexandrine is apparently easily seduced by a man when it looks like she’s been dumped by Chloe (echoes of Gigli anyone?). I don’t have a problem with gay characters but I do have one where it seems characters are not true to themselves.

Of course there are some meals, wine and cigars involved, including a reason why Austrian wines are not as popular as perhaps they should be (a story I remember from the late 1980s, early 1990s involving Austrian wine and Anti-Freeze, which when discovered made the bottom drop out of any market for the wine)

Book Review: The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers

The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers #BookCover #BookReview

From the author of Miss Garnet’s Angel, a story of the redemptive power of love and community in the famous French cathedral town

There is something very special about Agnès Morel. A quiet presence in the small French town of Chartres, she can be found cleaning the famed medieval cathedral each morning and doing odd jobs for the townspeople. No one knows where she came from or why. Not Abbé Paul, who discovered her one morning twenty years ago, sleeping on the north porch, and not Alain Fleury, the irreverent young restorer who works alongside her each day and whose attention she catches with her tawny eyes and elusive manner. She has transformed each of their lives in her own subtle way, yet no one suspects the dark secret Agnès is hiding.

When an accidental encounter dredges up a series of tragic incidents from Agnès’s youth, the nasty meddling of town gossips threatens to upend the woman’s simple, peaceful life. Her story reveals a terrible loss, a case of mistaken identity, and a cruel and violent act that haunts her past. Agnès wrestles with her own sense of guilt and enduring heartbreak while the citizens piece together the truth about her life.

Paper copy from my book group. Regular readers know that I dont usually go into such great depth as to plot lines etc in my reviews, but I built the following review as I went along. It has been culled (honest!) but is still perhaps too long and contains too many spoilers for which I apologise. Having read the post multiple times, and culled much, I struggled to find more I could cut.

Told from multiple viewpoints in various timeframes, this is ultimately about Agnès Morel and how she has been served by her community – and how she serves them.   Agnès has been living in Chartres for twenty years, helping its various residents with cleaning, baby-sitting and domestic work. We meet her on the morning that she agrees to take on the cleaning of the cathedral floor. No one knows quite where Agnès comes from after Abbé Paul discovered her one morning sleeping in the north porch of the Cathedral. Over the course of the novel, we learn of her traumatic past.…

The history

Agnès was abandoned as a baby and discovered in a wood by a local farmer, Jean Dupère, in a shopping basket. She is dark skinned, it is hinted possibly of Algerian parentage, but the only clue to her identity is a turquoise earring left with her in the basket. Dupère gives her to be raised by the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy at Evreux. Although bright (and, we later learn, with an uncanny gift for numbers) Agnès never learns to read or write and instead works on the domestic side for the convent. At fifteen, to the Sisters’ shock, she is found to be pregnant. The father is never identified and the child is taken from her as soon as it is born. Traumatised, Agnès begins to cut herself and, after appearing naked and brandishing a knife in the Mother Superior’s room, she is placed in a psychiatric clinic in Rouen under the care of Dr Deman.

In search of help from her past, Dr Deman makes contact with Jean Dupère and invites him to visit Agnès in the hope that his appearance may help Agnès to heal. The elderly farmer arrives with the earring to find Agnès comatose. Distressed he hurries away leaving the earring with Deman. Meanwhile, a new Australian nurse, Maddy, provides Deman with information of a mixed race baby who has been adopted by a nearby celebrity couple and who fits the likely appearance and age of Agnès’ own missing child. Shortly after, news comes of an attack on the child’s nanny, who has been stabbed, and Agnès appears to confess to the assault, insisting that the baby under the nanny’s care was Agnès’ own. Her testimony is unclear but she is transferred to a secure hospital in Le Mans and placed under the supervision of Dr Inez Nezat.

Deman feels guiltily responsible for this turn of events. Even though Agnès cannot read, he feels sure that she would never have made any connection with the nanny and child if he had not written their address on her file. He has a series of meetings with Nezat and manages to reintroduce Agnès to Jean Dupère who gives her the mysterious earring for her sixteenth birthday. Deman and Maddy, convinced by now that Agnès is innocent of the alleged crime, persuade Agnès to change her story. Eventually, the authorities agree to return Agnès to the clinic under the supervision of Deman. Here she sees again the picture of the mysterious labyrinth in the cathedral in Chartres that hangs in his study and with which she has always been fascinated.

After some time she is agreed to have been ‘cured’ and goes to live with Jean Dupère until he dies of cancer when Agnes is 19.  Inspired by a picture of the labyrinth, Agnès makes her way to Chartres. And so we discover how she came to be found, twenty years ago, in the Cathedral porch by Abbé Paul.

The now

Besides cleaning the cathedral, Agnès has been helping local Professor Jones sort through his past and agrees to clean for the gossipy and malicious Madame Beck. Working at the Cathedral each day, Agnès has become friends with the local restorer Alain Fleury, who is part of the cathedral’s restoration team. Madame Beck is scandalised one day to see Agnès in Alain’s arms. Although Alain was innocently helping Agnès down from the scaffold, it is clear that there is a romantic element to their friendship.

One day, Beck’s friend Madame Picot visits with her dog Piaf. While Beck is out of the room, Picot knocks a brown-skinned china doll off a side table and it breaks on the hearth. She quickly hides the evidence. Beck is a collector of these dolls and when she discovers that her doll is missing, she immediately accuses Agnès of stealing it. Agnès denies the theft but agrees to pay for the doll’s replacement. Leaving her employment with Beck, Agnès instead takes up the offer to clean for Abbé Paul. Beck is determined to poison Paul against Agnès, but despite her repeated visits to warn him against her, Paul sees through Beck’s small-minded accusations. Picot returns the doll to her friend’s house after getting it repaired but without appreciating the consequences her actions might have on Agnès.

Two of Sisters of Mercy, Mother Veronique and Sister Laurence, who were involved in Agnès’ past, are visiting Chartres to see the Holy Relic and are delighted to meet Agnès there. In the course of their visit, Mother Veronique is humiliated by Alain Fleury’s superior knowledge of the cathedral and, in order to reassert herself, shares her knowledge of Agnès’ traumatic past with Madame Beck, who has ingratiated herself with the nuns. Beck is thrilled to hear of the assault on the nanny. Again, she approaches Paul, insisting that Agnès should not be allowed to work in the cathedral.

Paul’s elderly colleague, the Abbé Bernard, has been gradually losing his mind. One afternoon, Agnès follows the Cathedral cat René down into the crypt where she discovers the Abbé Bernard in great distress: he thinks he has seen Beelzebub in the shape of a dog. Agnès comforts him, giving him her turquoise earring as a ward against evil. But the dog turns out to be real enough. It is Piaf, Madame Picot’s dog, who has escaped while in the care of Agnès’ friend Terry. Agnès is able to return Piaf to Terry, who is in turn able to return the dog to her distressed owner, Madame Picot. This happy turn of events is quickly followed by the shocking death of Abbé Bernard, who drowns himself in the river.

Many years ago, Agnès used to baby-sit a brother and sister, Philippe and Brigitte Nevers. Now Brigitte has a young baby, Max, and Philippe has persuaded Agnès to help Brigitte, who is struggling to care for Max and behaving negligently. Max spends a weekend in Agnès’ care, but the following day Philippe reports that Max has been taken to hospital with a broken wrist. Suspicion immediately falls on Agnès.

Madame Beck receives a file of clippings about Agnès’ possible past involvement in the attack on the nanny from Mother Veronique. As suspicions against her mount, Agnès disappears, only to be found later by Alain   in the Cathedral Crypt, having taken sleeping pills. As she drifts out of consciousness, she remembers the trauma of being raped when she was fifteen, with the resulting pregnancy. Alain rescues Agnès and when she wakes the following morning in Abbe Paul’s house, she confides her past to the Abbé, explaining how she stole her file from Dr Deman and got a friend to read the address he’d written there.

She confesses that she believed the adopted baby to have been her own and that she did indeed stab the nanny, as well as hurting Max. She asks the Abbé if she should give herself up to the police. This is a key moment in the narrative. Paul decides that she has suffered enough already and that a further confession will help no one. It is enough that she has confided the truth to him.

Meanwhile, all of the misinformation and suspicion surrounding Agnès is being dispelled. Terry has explained to Madame Picot that it was, in fact, Agnès who found her dog Piaf. In turn, Madame Picot decides to reveal to Madame Beck that it was she who broke her doll. Mother Veronique, meanwhile, writes to Madame Beck to say that she regrets sending the clippings about Agnès’ past and implicating her in the stabbing. Philippe Nevers confronts his sister about her son Max’s injuries and exposes the lies she’s been telling and her culpability for Max’s mistreatment.

Madame Beck makes a visit to the Abbé’s in order to reiterate her accusations against Agnès. While there, she sees the earring and recognises it as the survivor of a pair given to her by her late husband. However, Paul stoutly denies that it belongs to her. Chastened by his dismissal, Madame Beck returns home only to discover the earring she believed missing is still in her jewel box. It was, she is sure, taken by an Algerian waitress who worked in her husband’s restaurant and with whom we realise he was having an affair. Unaware that she has unwittingly revealed Agnès’ parentage, and believing that she may be demented, she writes to Mother Veronique to seek sanctuary at the convent.

There is an afterward that reveals what happens to the principal characters in the book, including Agnes and Alain.

About the Author

Salley Vickers was born in Liverpool, the home of her mother, and grew up as the child of parents in the British Communist Party. Her father was a trade union leader and her mother a social worker. She won a state scholarship to St Paul’s Girls’ School and went on to read English at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she is currently a Royal Literary Fund fellow.

She has worked, variously, as a cleaner, a dancer, an artist’s model, a teacher of children with special needs, a university teacher of literature and a psychoanalyst. Her first novel, Miss Garnet’s Angel, became an international word-of-mouth bestseller and a favourite among book clubs and reading groups. She now writes full time and lectures widely on many subjects, particularly the connections between, art, literature, psychology and religion.

Her principal interests are opera, bird watching, dancing and poetry, to which her father introduced her at an early age. Her name Salley, the Irish for ‘willow’, comes from a poem by her father’s favourite poet, W B Yeats, called ‘Down by the salley gardens’, once set to music by Benjamin Britten.

She has two adult sons and three grandchildren, with whom she spends as much time as she possibly can.

Additional Resources

Book Review: Late Harvest Havoc by Jean-Pierre Alaux, Noël Balen, Sally Pane (Translation)

Late Harvest Havoc #winemaker #detective

Winter is in the air in Alsace and local customs are sowing trouble, piquing the curiosity of the famous winemaker from Bordeaux, Benjamin Cooker. While the wine expert and his assistant Virgile settle into their hotel in the old city of Colmar, distinguished vineyards are attacked. Is it revenge? The plot thickens when estates with no apparent connection to one another suffer the same sabotage just days prior to the late harvest. All of Alsace is in turmoil, plunged in the grip of suspicion that traces its roots back to the darkest hours of the German occupation. As he crosses back and forth into Germany from the Alsace he thought he knew so well, Cooker discovers a land of superstition, rivalry, and jealousy. Between tastings of the celebrated wines, he is drawn into the lives and intrigues of the inhabitants.

From the publishers Le French Book, via Netgalley in exchange for a review. Number 10 in the Winemaker Detective series – I have read and reviewed the previous books in this series and links to the reviews can be found at the bottom of this post.

This time Benjamin Cooker and Virgile Lanssien are in the Alsace region of France during the wintertime. Due to its location, ie. in France but bordering Germany and Switzerland, the Alsace region has alternated between German and French control over the centuries and reflects a mix of the 2 cultures.

The story starts with Benjamin looking around Strasbourg Cathedral, where he gets to flirt and show off to a local (female) tour guide – only  to witness her death from a heart attack minutes after the tour finishes. Her death generally puts him out of sorts for the rest of the book.

Benjamin and Virgile are in the area to check on and review the output from the Deutzler family estate, only to find a crippled head of the family and a deadly undercurrent of tension going on between his offspring and their spouses (and his nurse).

Someone is vandalising local vineyards just as the late harvest is about to start. There seems no pattern to the attacks, nothing to connect the damage at one estate to that of another attack miles away (sometimes on the same night). As Benjamin and Virgile dig deeper there’s the suspicion that the attacks are in retaliation to what happened during WWII and it soon transpires that whoever is involved knows more about viniture than meets the eye – the tools involved and the damage done takes some expertise in the wine world.

Meanwhile, someone seems to know that Cooker is in town – and considers him to be a threat – by slashing the tires on his car, making the pair resort to borrowing cars from various people

Now they are in a different region of France – and one so close to the border with Germany – it almost goes without saying that Benjamin and Virgile do not sting on sampling the local delicacies:

The small fried perch was always crusty, the baked fois gras was wonderfully creamy, and the squab was so tender, Benjamin would almost forget to put his fork to the delicate mushroom tart accompanying the dish.

in particular the cheese (Cooker seems to believe in “the smellier the better”):

He loved it particularly ripened, when the golden crust was nice and firm, and the rind had gone from soft to cream. As with wine, Benjamine Cooker assessed Munsters with his nose. He’d plunge his knife to reveal the center of this cheese from the Vosges Plateau. The more tenacious and rustic the aroma – even a tad repugnant – the more the cheese lover’s nose quivered.

As per usual, these are not long books, and don’t go into too much heavy detail as to motive etc. You are there to enjoy the scenery, the food, the smell of good cigars, and hopefully enjoy the challenge of who does what to whom, especially when people and places have long memories.

My reviews of the other books are as follows (in no specific order):

Grand Cru Heist

Nightmare in Burgundy

Deadly Tasting

Cognac Conspiracies

Flambe in Armagnac

Monmartre Mysteries

Backstabbing in Beaujolais

Mayhem in Margaux


Book Review: Backstabbing in Beaujolais by Jean-Pierre Alaux, Noël Balen

Backstabbing in BeaujolaisA business magnate calls on wine expert Benjamin Cooker to kickstart his new wine business in Beaujolais, sparking bitter rivalries. Can the Winemaker Detective and his assistant keep calculating real estate agents, taciturn winegrowers, dubious wine merchants and suspicious deaths from delaying delivery of the world-famous Beaujolais Nouveau?

Received from the publishers LeFrench Book via Netgalley in exchange for a review.

Another short investigation by Benjamin and Virgile, and a slight change in the format of the books just to keep things interesting – the story starts with a dead body, the goes back several months to introduce the back history, before announcing the killer.

Benjamin and Virgile have been commissioned by Guillaume Périthiard (a self made millionaire with a thing for watches) to help restore a wine estate in Beaujolais. Mr. Périthiard wants to return to the region where he grew up and become a major force in the wine making industry. However, not everyone is happy about his plans, in no small part because Périthiard is an ambitious man, and believes nothing cant be fixed without spending money.

Things take a turn for the worse when one of his new employees – poached from a competitor – dies while out hunting. Was it an accident or something more sinister?  Périthiard’s wife is threatening divorce, and Périthiard’s interest is being piqued by the wife of the local estate agent (who has managed to persuade Périthiard into investing in some restaurants as a side line).

While overseeing the restoration of the vines and wine making equipment it is up to Benjamin and Virgile to find out who is behind the murderous attempts to sabotage Mr. Périthiard’s business interests.

As usual there is some history and discussion of the Beaujolais wines, where we get to learn about the different types and the impact of the Nouveau run (as much of a marketing event in the 1990s as anything to do with wine) as well as some wonderful sounding meals. We also get to find that some of Cooker’s friends (a married couple of a successful writer and an artist) aren’t good cooks!

The murderer is identified as much by instinct and guess work as anything else, so it can seem to come rather suddenly, which can come as a surprise!

Additional Reviews

The Bowed Bookshelf

Kirstie Bryant

The Big Thrill

Book Review: Montmartre Mysteries by Jean-Pierre Alaux, Noël Balen, TR Sally Pane

monmartre mysteriesWine expert Benjamin Cooker travels to the French capital, where his is called to help care for some vineyards in Montmartre, a neighbourhood full of memories for him. He stops in on an old friend. Arthur Solacroup left the Foreign Legion to open a wine shop good enough to be in the Cooker Guide. But an attempted murder brings the past back into the present. But which past? The winemaker detective and his assistant Virgile want to know more, and their investigation leads them from the the sands of Djibouti to the vineyards of Côte du Rhône.

Published by Le French Book and obtained via Netgalley in exchange for a review.

Number 8 in the Winemaker Detective series, and it’s winter in Paris about a year after Mayhem In Margaux. Benjamin has been tempted to the capital by a cryptic note, asking for his help regarding some vines growing in the Bretonneau Hospital, near the middle of the city. The vines are perilously close to dying and threaten to deny Parisians a decent wine grown within reach.

Montmartre has loads of memories for Benjamin, who spent much of his younger years in the city, especially before getting married. Before his visit to the hospital that contains the vines, he visits an old acquaintance – Arthur, a wine merchant with a shady past in the French Foreign Legion. However, Benjamin’s visit interrupts an apparent robbery, which results in Arthur being dangerously injured and taken to the hospital.

Benjamin and Virgile investigate, and there is much discussion about regionality within France, local pride and expertise in the local food and drink. The discovery of those involved is of secondary concern in this story, and as usual is a vehicle to convey stories about France (Paris in this book), regional food and drink and how to spot “non-natives”. It also gives a chance to hear about the buying of truffles (individuals protecting their “black diamonds” in bags, only to be shown to the serious of heart) whilst giving some insight into wine tastings and what people will do to get on the good side of the influential and powerful.

Cooker is able to use his position in the wine community to find things out that the Police are unlikely to find out. However, Cooker and Virgile are always on the periphery of things, don’t get involved with the police investigation and don’t get proper “closure” as to the identification of the robber – however, they are in the position to sit back, and see things from the sidelines, making connections where the police are, perhaps, unable to do so.

After previous books focussing on either Cooker or Virgile, this book had a nice balance between the two men. Cooker manages to spend time with Elizabeth, and Virgile takes part (off set) in a triathlon and places well.  Virgile is out of place in Paris however, and no match of Parisian women, so for once he gets no further than flirting and even misses a trick with an older woman trying to pick him up in a hotel bar.  The book is short, and the denouement traditionally short, but finding out “whodunnit” is not the point of these books…..

Recommended for those who like the journey, with good food and wine, as much as, if not more than the destination.


Book Review: Flambé in Armagnac by Jean-Pierre Alaux, Noël Balen, Sally Pane

flambe in armagnacIn the heart of Gascony, a fire ravages the warehouse of one of Armagnac s top estates, killing the master distiller. Wine expert Benjamin Cooker is called in to estimate the value of the losses. But Cooker and his assistant Virgile want to know more. Did the old alembic explode? Was it really an accident? Why is the estate owner Baron de Castayrac penniless? How legal are his dealings?

From Le French Press via Netgalley in exchange for a review. Number 7 in the Winemaker Detective Series.

It is early in the new year, and Benjamin receives directions from an insurance company to investigate a devastating fire in the Armagnac  area that has wiped out a large warehouse apparently full of stock. He finds out later that François, the master (and only) distiller employed by the estate, was killed during the fire that happened on Christmas Eve.   He also finds out that the local agent for the company lives in the area and Virgile is dispatched to stay there, in part to see what he can find out.

Benjamin and Virgile start to investigate and find the estate owner, Baron de Castayrac, to be snobbish, standoffish and barely polite. It’s clear that he is short of money, unable to provide even the most basic hospitality (compared to the welcome Benjamin and Virgile had received from Philippe and Beatrice de Bouglon the day before).   Benjamin tries not to judge about keeping such a château heated to any great level – it’s winter after all and he knows people with similar sized houses who complain about trying to keep such a place warm. However, not being offered even a cup of tea – something that would sooth Benjamin’s English soul – puts his nose out of joint.

As they investigate further they uncover undercurrents that are circulating in the area – that the Baron was not the only one to be sleeping around, that his two sons have plenty of reasons to resent him, as do other families in the area. Benjamin finds out that the Insurance company are right to suspect the Baron of some kind of fraud, but it seems that even after his arrest, it’s not the end of the story.

I’m not sure which came first – the TV programme or the books, but all the stories are short and quickly paced which makes it easy and fast to read. There is plenty of wine and food to be had, which makes a suitably stark contrast with the Baron, who wont even share a glass of water with his guests.  After seeing so much of Benjamin’s family in the previous book (Mayhem in Margaux), in some ways it’s a shame that the family get put back in their box, but hopefully they’ll be seen again soon.

For once Virgile isn’t to be found mooning after some girl, but making friends with a talented rugby player, with whom he has lots in common, at the beginning of a promising professional career.

There’s plenty of discussions around Gascony food, traditions and Armagnac, such as the Blanche d’Armagnac.  since I find it hard to describe the style of these books, I will provide an example of the style of the writing.

Enchanting frost crystals had formed around the leaded windows overlooking the estate’s pollarded plane trees. The water pipes had frozen, and the faucet was no longer working, but who cared? At Prada one was hardly inclined to drink water. Beatrice brought out some of her vintage jars of duck foie gras, appropriately truffled. A 1989 Suduiraut Cuvee Madame, exquisitely amber in colour, accompanied the feast.

I’ve found an interview with the authors from back in 2012 and can be found here.

A here’s an article on how Wine and (fictional) Murder seem to go hand in hand.



Book Review: Mayhem in Margaux by Jean-Pierre Alaux, Noël Balen, Sally Pane

mayhem in Margaux
It s summer in Bordeaux. There s a heat wave, the vineyards are suffering, vintners are on edge, and wine expert Benjamin Cooker s daughter is visiting. A tragic car accident draws the Winemaker Detective and his assistant Virgile into a case where the stakes are very personal, and they uncover some dirty secrets hiding behind the robe of some of Bordeaux s finest grand cru classe wines from Margaux

Published by Le French Book.  I received an ebook off Netgalley in exchange for a review. More about the authors here.

This is number 6 in The Winemaker Detective series, and it’s working out to be a long hot summer. Benjamin is on edge, his daughter is over from the US, and has started hanging around with Antoine Rinetti, the new estate manager for Château Gayroud-Valrose.  After Margaux and Rinetti are injured in a car crash – the latter fatally – further digging by Benjamin and Inspector Barbaroux shows that Rinetti was a money man who had made himself indispensable to the Mob,  and has to lie low.  He has made no friends, having made many people on the Château out of work, resulting in at least one person committing suicide. It puts a different light on the crash, which was caused by tampered brake lines, and puts the focus on Rinetti rather than Benjamin as a target.

Meanwhile Benjamin and Virgile are making site visits to vineyards as consultants due to the weather, and (based on a badly spelt tip off) visit the Château and find a badly ill illegal worker on site. This allows for the authorities to go on site and it is a mix of investigations by the police, and luck on Benjamin’s side, that they work out who the killer is.

As a side story, Benjamin has taken the usual annual holiday home with his wife Elizabeth and several friends.  Whilst the previous book focussed more on Virgile, this allows us to see a different side of the detective – his family and friends are more visible, we get to see Elizabeth more, and this is the first time we’ve met Margaux. Crocker is still (over) protective of his “little” girl and is torn when she makes friends with Virgile after her accident – he’s a bit of a womaniser, but he makes her laugh and pulls her out of her depression.  Of course there are now the mandatory epic meals, with matching wines, to be savoured over.

A good addition to the series, and satisfying to see the characters are becoming more rounded as the series moves on.


Book Review: Cognac Conspiracies by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen

cognac conspracies #wine #epicureThe heirs to one of the oldest Cognac estates in France face a hostile takeover by foreign investors. Renowned wine expert Benjamin Cooker is called in to audit the books. In what he thought was a sleepy provincial town, he is stonewalled, crosses paths with his first love, and stands up to high-level state officials keen on controlling the buyout. Meanwhile, irresistible Virgile mingles with the local population until a drowning changes the stakes

From Edelweiss in exchange for a review

The fifth in the series, and Benjamin is finding himself in uncharted territory and he’s not entirely comfortable. One of the oldest Cognac producers (the Lavoisier Château) has found itself with a minority shareholder in the form of the Chinese. Benjamin has been hired to do an audit of the winemaking capability to allow the Chinese to bring the business into the modern world. The Chinese  have not appreciated the history of the French Winemakers and that modernity takes a long time to trickle through. Not only is Benjamin getting nowhere with Marie-France (the primary one of the three siblings who own the business), but he is also having quiet meetings in churchyards with the French Government and getting pressure to scupper the deal.

Meanwhile there is an undercurrent of secrets, rumours and sexuality within the family, and Virgile, Benjamin’s assistant, is bearing the brunt of it. Where Benjamin makes no headway with the Little Pierre, the younger brother, it seems Pierre has taken a fancy to Virgile, and things are progressing well until Pierre is found drowned one morning.

Having left Virgile to see what he can find out, Benjamin is having lunch when he meets his first love, a British woman who has been living in France for over 10 years. His happy marriage with Elizabeth is no deterrent to Shelia, who repeatedly comes on to Benjamin – he declines the offer, and realises over the next few days that she is another person with secrets, including a son (Nathan) that is never mentioned in any of their conversations.

In the end the threads are pulled together in a rather more satisfying way than some of the previous books in the series and the book feels a little more rounded. This is technically a Benjamin Crocker book, but Virgile is finding out much more than Benjamin is now, and is central to finding out what’s going on.

Some other posts you might be interested in:

Deadly Tasting by Jean-Pierre Alaux, Noël Balen

Nightmare in Burgundy by Jean-Pierre Alaux, Noël Balen

Grand Cru Heist by Jean-Pierre Alaux, Noël Balen

Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé by Joanne Harris

The Lollipop Shoes by Joanne Harrislated

Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé by Joanne Harris