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