THE MARSEILLE CAPER. By Peter Mayle. Knopf. 210 pages. $24.
The “Marseille Caper” begins where Peter Mayle’s last novel, “The Vintage Caper,” left off: with unorthodox crime solver and bon vivant Sam Levitt confronted by his former nemesis, Francis Reboul, the fabulously wealthy French developer and genial wine thief.
It seems that Sam heisted a $3 million wine collection from Reboul, who heisted the wine from Sam’s client in the first place. Reboul has not come seeking revenge, but instead has an intriguing proposition to offer. Appreciative of extraordinary talent, Reboul wants Sam as his front man in an oceanfront real estate development project in Marseille because Reboul cannot be publicly attached to the scheme.
In an effort to recruit a disinclined Sam, Reboul enlists the help of Sam’s lady friend, Elena Morales, who distinguishes herself almost to the bitter end by doing little more than wearing towels or diaphanous clothing and saying things like: “Delicious.” Naturally, a deal is struck over a sumptuous dinner with splendid wines, and Sam and Elena are whisked away to the South of France by Reboul in his luxe et volupte Gulfstream G550, archrivals no more.
But before Sam can settle into the serious business of getting French bureaucrats, one of whom is on the take, to vote in favor of his Reboul’s project, there is delectable wine; tuna roe drizzled with olive oil; fried aubergines dusted with mint; salmon tartare with honey and dill; fried zucchini flowers; thin slices of inkfish; and profiteroles with creme Chantilly to be consumed. This is, after all, a novel by the author of “A Year in Provence.”
As Mayle teases out the crime-in-progress, he fondly explains all things French through Sam’s foil, French journalist, fixer and affirmed cheek-kisser Philippe: “We drink, my God how we drink. It has been said that our national preoccupations are sex, hypochondria and the belly.”
Though neither a particularly sinister nor violent story, the Marseille situation becomes grim when Philippe is brutally attacked by thugs acting on behalf of a dodgy competitor, and keeping all safe while outmaneuvering the competition requires all of Sam’s cunning instincts. Still, there is always time to stop and smell the bouillabaisse, especially when sharing a table at Peron’s with the ever charming Elena: “She chewed, she swallowed, her eyes opened wide. Mmm, she said. More.” As things heat up, Elena gets her opportunity to play a more dramatic role in the long tradition of “The Perils of Pauline” archetypes.
With “The Marseille Caper,” Mayle certainly gives Francophiles and oenophiles yet another reason to celebrate, perhaps as Mayle might, with a solid red wine from the Languedoc, but even if you don’t know a Chateauneuf-du-Pape from a Beckstoffer Cabernet, it provides a pleasurable read, or I should say a tasty morsel.
Reviewer Virginia Friedman is an independent filmmaker and writer in Charleston.