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BOOK REVIEW

A delicious romp through Bordeaux and Marseille

The Vintage Caper A Novel; Peter Mayle Alfred A. Knopf: 228 pp., $24.95

November 18, 2009|Bernadette Murphy | Murphy has written three books of narrative nonfiction and is the author of a forthcoming novel "Grace Notes."

"Provence A-Z," "French Lessons," "Encore Provence," Toujours Provence," "Chasing Cezanne": Peter Mayle, best known for his bestselling "A Year in Provence," has made a cottage industry of writing about Provence and the entire South of France, with copious references to delectable cuisine and coveted wine selections. After writing mostly nonfiction in recent years, he's enjoying a return to the whodunit form with "The Vintage Caper," providing Francophiles, foodies and wine lovers a fun way to indulge their passions while helping solve the case.

At the heart of the novel is the obnoxiously wealthy Danny Roth, an entertainment lawyer living in the Hollywood Hills with his "young, blond, fashionably gaunt wife" and his $3-million wine collection. But he's dissatisfied. For as much as possession of the coveted bottles inspires him, guests appear less than suitably impressed when he offers tours of his cellar. A Malibu couple "hadn't even bothered to remove their sunglasses" and they'd added the ultimate affront: choosing iced tea with dinner.

Danny arrives at two conclusions: First, "that inconspicuous consumption was for wimps, and second, that his wine collection deserved a wider audience." To correct this problem, he somehow conveniently arranges for the L.A. Times to profile him. Of course, pride cometh before the fall: in no time after the fawning feature story appears, hundreds of his best bottles are stolen.

Tout de suite, Sam Levitt is on the case. Sam is a onetime corporate lawyer-turned-criminal who has now gone over to the good side, using his wily ways to solve crimes for insurance companies. (Conveniently, he's also an oenophile.) Soon, Sam's en route to Bordeaux to learn about the wineries that created the missing bottles, the better to track down the culprit. (And to enjoy some spectacular meals and wine along the way.)

"The Vintage Caper" is just that -- a caper -- a lighthearted romp through Bordeaux and Marseille, in which picking the right restaurant, choosing the best dish on the menu and, of course, finding the perfect wine (and female companion) to accompany the feast is every bit as important as catching the thief.

Characters fall into predictable categories, albeit with an epicurean's touch: Sam, the hard-boiled detective with a weak spot for the ladies, lives at the Chateau Marmont when not traipsing the globe; he's also the ultimate gourmand. Danny, the devastated wine owner, is a caricature of every high-paid, overindulged "industry" exec you've ever met. (Looking at the view from his home in the Hollywood Hills, he thinks, "Mine, all mine.") Elena Morales, the Los Angeles insurance representative who hires Sam for the job, just happens to be stunningly beautiful and, coincidentally, Sam's former squeeze. Sophie Costes, a "born and bred Bordelaise" and Elena's French counterpart who works with Sam to solve the mystery, is both a wine/food expert and amazingly attractive. "It was entirely unworthy and chauvinistic of him, he knew, but he was much happier working with good-looking women." Even the LAPD cop Sam bribes for inside information can be bought off with the promise of an outstanding meal and spectacular wine.

In the course of solving the mystery, Sam gets in a few digs at Los Angeles, mocking the cellphone manners of its denizens, as well as the state of its culture and dining. At one particular Santa Monica eatery, he reports that the multiple tiny courses "arrived perched on a teaspoon, others contained in a glass eyedropper. Sauces were served in a syringe," and a request for bread with the meal was met with the chef's clear disapproval. Only in France, the writing implies, do people really know how to live in a civilized manner.

Still, a romp is a romp, and this one is enjoyable, especially when the narrative moves away from the unlikable Danny Roth and begins to frolic in the South of France. Oddly, though the author stays true to the whodunit format with his characters, he does not hew to traditional plot conventions. When Sam hatches a risky plan to solve the wine theft, for instance, a reader may wait for the catastrophe that will imperil the hero's precarious scheme -- and will continue waiting, as all goes perfectly according to plan.

But then again, the novel's plot and the form's conventions are clearly beside the point. Enjoying the stunning French day, the luscious food and the people who devote such time and leisure to relishing their meals -- that is the point. Bon appetit!

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