The Vintage Caper was everything I thought it would be – breezy and fun with a mystery that eventually gets to southern France. (Marseilles, to be precise.) Definitely a good start to ease into the right-on-time spring we are having.
L.A. entertainment lawyer Danny Roth likes to show off all the fancy accoutrements of his expensive and expansive lifestyle – fancy wife, fancy house, fancy wine cellar. After a write-up full of photos and details, Danny has the nerve to be surprised when he returns from a holiday skiing vacation to find his Mexican butler missing, as well as the most valuable bottles in his cellar.
Enter Sam Levitt. He has all the necessary traits to solve this mystery: shady past, police connections, a delicate palate for wine. Mayle paints a vague back story that serves the novel’s purpose. We learn Sam had an affair with his contact at the insurance company on the case. We learn he became an investigator because a stint in a Congolese jail scared him straight. That’s about all that matters.
The plot is simple, thrumming along as Sam moves from town to town to follow his leads. The characters have many quirks so are amusing and easily delineated from each other.
Where Mayle excels is description. His locations, be it a French village or a particular building, evoke more than the architecture and paint colors.
The Chateau Marmont, tucked away off Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, was intended to be L.A.’s first earthquake-proof apartment building. Alas, it opened in 1929, when the financial tremors from Wall Street and the Depression made selling apartments impossible. Rooms were an easier sale, and so the Chateau became a hotel with apartment-sized suites.
This, for Sam, was one of its great attractions, but there were many more: the absence of domestic responsibilities, the charm and efficiency of the staff, the discreet entrance, the convenient location, the relaxed atmosphere. Unlike most modern formula hotels, the Chateau had character, a distinct personality. And there were suites available for permanent guests, the lifers. After a trial stay, Sam became one of them. (33)
When Sam and his French liaison Sophie follow a lead to Marseille, a tone is set and promptly dispelled.
Sam had never been to Marseille, but he’d seen ‘The French Connection’ and read one or two breathless articles by travel writers, and he thought he knew what to expect. There would be villainous characters – undoubtedly trainee Mafia executives – lurking on every street corner. The first market on the Quai des Belges would be a conduit for substances not normally found inside fish: sea bass stuffed with heroin, or grouper with a cocaine garnish. Pickpockets and voyous of all kinds would be conveniently place to relieve the unwary tourist of camera, wallet, or handbag. In every respect, it would echo Somerset Maugham’s summing-up of the Cote d’Azur – ‘a sunny place for shady people.’ It sounded interesting.
Sophie, who had visited the city once, some years before, did little to change Sam’s expectations. Compared with the ordered gentility of Bordeaux, Marseille as she remembered it was a scruffy, crowded labyrinth, teeming with raucous, often rather sinister-looking men and women. ‘Louche’ was the word she used to describe both the city and its inhabitants – that is, as the dictionary puts it, ‘shifty, suspicious, dubious and equivocal.’ She wondered how her cousin Philippe could live, apparently happily, in such a place. But then, as she said to Sam, she had often thought there was a slightly louche side to him.
When they arrived at Marignane airport that afternoon, such dark thoughts were immediately dispelled by the dramatic, almost blinding clarity of the light, the thick Gauloise blue of the sky, and the amiable nature of the taxi driver who was taking them to their hotel. It soon became clear that he had missed his vocation; he should have been working for the tourist office. According to him, Marseille was the center of the universe, whereas Paris was no more than a pimple on the map. Marseille, having been established more than 2,600 years ago, was a treasure trove of history, tradition, and culture. The restaurants of Marseille were the reason God made fish. And the people of Marseille were the most generous and warm-hearted souls one could wish to meet. (92-93)
Now I want to visit the Chateau Marmont and Marseille. That is the success of Peter Mayle. Maybe it’s his outsider’s eye but he has a knack for plucking the best details about a place and including them in his stories.
The Vintage Caper was a quick, satisfying read that made my dreary train rides a little brighter. Maybe I should have picked it up sooner and the bright charm of Marseille would have dispelled some of the winter gloom.