Tag Archives: mystery

Unfinished Portrait – Anthea Fraser

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Unfinished Portrait by Anthea Fraser isn’t so much a who-dunnit? as a where-is-she? Writer Rona Parish is commissioned to produce a biography of Elspeth Wilding, a celebrated painter who disappeared more than a year before, leaving her studio, unfinished work and family behind. Rona hesitates—she is a series amateur sleuth who gets dragged into more mayhem than she can handle–afraid that this story could be more than a simple book. But she succumbs and, naturally, the baffling disappearance takes center stage. Elspeth’s trail lures Rona outside her picturesque village of Marsborough to towns in the surrounding countryside, to London and even to the Scottish coast.

Elspeth Wilding is, or was,  a reclusive, egocentric, wild talent and everyone has a tale to tell about her, many of them unflattering. Rona struggles to maintain her comfortable, event-free life, lunching and dining nearly every day with friends, her twin sister, and her artist husband who lives at home part time and in his studio across town, where he teaches art students several days a week. Rona’s dog needs constant walking. Her sister collects a difficult but attractive boyfriend with a connection to Wilding. Wilding’s family members do and don’t know what happened to her. And all is not as it seems in the art world or in Wilding’s world.

An old friend, a dramatic suicide, a greedy possibly-corrupt celebrity, a loyal housekeeper, divorced parents with new partners, a Scottish hideaway and some old masterpieces complicate the plot. The book is a UK print and is written in British vernacular, which makes it more interesting. Rona’s life of pubs, wine bars, interior design and fashion shows is upscale and moderately privileged—she seems to have a readymade journalism job for the times when she doesn’t feel up to the work of biographies so the story bears a tinge of fairytale. She doesn’t work especially hard nor ask very penetrating questions of her sources.

A murder that seems, and is, senseless lends sudden urgency to solving the mystery but the resolution comes pretty much out of nowhere and doesn’t feel organic to the plot. The concerns of the characters don’t come across as terribly urgent, the evil is grafted on, and the end is not entirely satisfying. Fraser creates a world of fortunate people who are more or less unmindful of their advantages and so it’s hard to get too worked up about their problems. Unfinished Portrait is an undemanding read with lovely Britishisms and an okay but uncompelling mystery that you cannot solve but that is ultimately revealed in detail. Could have been stronger. I’m going to reserve judgment until I plow through one more of her mysteries with a different protagonist, to see whether she dashes off finales as casually in all of her novels.

Unfinished Portrait (Rona Parish Mysteries)   Anthea Fraser | Severn House  2010

The Vintage Caper – Peter Mayle

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Peter Mayle is back with a non-threatening, delicious mystery that opens in opulent, nouveau riche Hollywood and rapidly transitions to Paris, Bordeaux and Marseilles. It’s always about fine wine and it’s always about the South of France for Mayle and that’s fine. In The Vintage Caper, we witness a multimillion-dollar wine heist, the game plan of a philanthropic and egotistical billionaire, the seedier alleyways of Marseilles, the Mediterranean rendition of a McMansion with a wine cellar as capacious as a small town, and plenty of illegal activity that must be outwitted but never really threatens.

Mayle’s books are comforting in that a reader is certain his likable characters will come to no serious harm. That does remove any possibility for edge-of-the-chair chapters but it’s okay. You can actually relax reading a oenophile’s romp through vintages and cellars and tastings and spectacular scenery.

Danny Roth is a repugnant entrepreneur and collector with a $3 million-dollar cellar of rare Bordeaux. Elena Morales is a claims adjuster at Knox Worldwide, the unfortunate insurers of the Roth collection which has been removed from its premises sans permission by the end of chapter one. Sam Levitt is a private eye who lives at the Chateau Marmont and was once involved with Elena. Sophie Costes is a knock-out wine insurance expert in Bordeaux who speaks excellent English and shepherds Sam around wine country. Francis Reboul is the unofficial king of Marseilles, a self-made gazillionaire who restores a crumbling estate overlooking the harbor and is the city’s biggest booster.

How the rather thin plot spins out holds no real surprises but, as always, the meals are described in loving detail, the wine is catalogued expertly, the women are savvy and irresistibly attractive, the men poke around and uncover clues that lead to a resolution of the crime, and the end is a graceful cover-up that harms no one and acknowledges all the players in an international game of intrigue and skill. Rainy afternoon read. The Vintage Caper is vintage Mayle. Read it while sipping a glass of decent Bordeaux.

The Vintage Caper   Peter Mayle | Alfred A. Knopf   2009

A Good Year — Peter Mayle

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Peter Mayle’s A Good Year is mystery-lite. It’s a very good glass of wine—fragrant with the scents of the Provence, Mayle’s beloved niche as resident and writer—and easy to imbibe, like a smooth blend of grapes. So the book is a mini-vacation, a travel-free trip to a lovely, warm destination where not a lot happens and people are fine with that.

Max Skinner works in finance in London but his own finances are a mess. He likes his job, more or less, but hates his boss, and with good reason. The weasel hijacks Max’s ready-to-pay-off big deal and Max quits and is unceremoniously turned out of his cubicle without a dime in severance. Unfortunately, the bonus from the deal was supposed to pay off his creditors and right his listing fiscal ship—all off now.

But a solicitor’s letter saves the day with a convenient inheritance of a chateau and vineyard in Provence, the place where Max spent his childhood summers. His friend Charlie, a major real estate shark and all around cheerful guy, loans him a wad of cash and Max sets out to claim his vineyard and a new life.

Not so simple, but not too much more complicated, actually. The local lawyer is a dish and is worth far more than a modest village practice might indicate. The vineyard caretaker has a secret he is desperate to hide. The new housekeeper is a non-stop talker with a heart-of-gold and a bossy streak. The proprietor of the village bistro is hotter than her delectable cuisine and seems interested in Max. The chateau’s wine, however, is tant pis—or maybe pisse, worse than vinegar.

Into this sunny land of lovingly described meals and lively characters comes a long-lost relative with her own claims to the estate. Christie happens to be a tour guide in a Napa Valley winery, with a skill set that will come in very handy to resolve the plot. As she pokes around the estate, her questions reveal some inconsistencies that could mean fortune or disaster for the future of the property and whomever owns it. Best Friend Charlie drops in for a visit just in time and the local fabrication of lies begins to unravel.

Charlie and Christie find some common ground, leaving Max to pursue the sexy restaurateur. The glamorous local lawyer is still very much in the picture and the greed- and status-driven international  boutique wine trade edges in along with a couple of nefarious villains. Criminals and conspiracies mix with revelries at the village festival. More local comestibles are consumed, wine is tasted, an odd patch of rocky land holds an important clue.

A Good Year is a good escape book for a dreary day or an unclaimed evening when a visit to Provence is the perfect way to kill a few pleasant hours. The author’s impeccable credentials allow you to relax and enjoy vicarious imbibing, ingesting and investigating even when the clues seem a little heavy-handed and the Provenceaux too readily accepting of outsiders.   

 A Good Year     Peter Mayle | Alfred A. Knopf  2004