BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Marseille Caper’

THE MARSEILLE CAPER
By Peter Mayle
Alfred A. Knopf, $24, 210 pages

If you like descriptions of food, people eating and drinking champagne and an attractive portrait of Marseille with bits of plot sprinkled in, then Peter Mayle’s new novel, “The Marseille Caper,” may be for you. The book is a bit of froth, rather on the pedestrian side, except for those delicious mouthfuls, which begin with coffee on Page 1, continuing on Page 12 with champagne, white and red wines, leading into an account of braised rabbit and pappardelle with wild mushrooms in the dining room of the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood.

The novel ends on page 209 with lunch, starting “with an appetizer of beignets de fleurs, flash-fried zucchini flowers. These were followed by tarts of anchovies and olives on a bed of softened onions. The main dish was a charlotte of lamb and aubergines, served with potatoes roasted in goose fat. Then a little cheese, provided by an obliging local goat. And finally, a soup of peaches topped with sprigs of fresh verbena.”

There is a plot in between lunches and dinners — not to mention croissants and pastries. It revolves around a competition among three business enterprises for the contract to develop a “charming little bay to the east of the old port” of Marseille, land “with its feet in the Mediterranean” as the saying goes. Two of the shortlist bids are from an English syndicate and a group from Paris, both with plans to build big hotels “with all the modern trimmings — rooftop pools, spas, luxury shopping malls, the same tired old ideas.” Both, by Marseille standards, are foreigners. The third bid, by Francis Reboul, is for “something for the Marseillais. Apartments — but low, nothing higher than three floors — set in a terraced garden leading down to the sea. And then, a small marina, not for yachts but for the kind of little boats that ordinary people who live by the sea might have.”

Reboul is “a man for whom the word dapper might have been invented. Like many fortunate Mediterranean men, his skin welcomed the sun, and his smooth, light-mahogany complexion provided a most flattering contrast with his perfectly white, perfectly trimmed hair.” Reboul, a superrich Marseillais, comes to Los Angeles to seek the help of Sam Levitt. Sam, who makes his living as a sort-of detective, had met Reboul when he traced the theft of hundreds of bottles of excellent Bordeaux wine to Reboul’s cellar and stole them back for his client. Now, to Sam’s surprise, here was Reboul seeking to hire him for a job in Marseille.

Reboul explains to Sam that the chairman of the committee choosing the final bid, Jerome Patrimonio, hates him — “ah, there was a woman ” — so his proposal was submitted in the name of a private Swiss bank and an American firm of architects. Reboul’s name appears nowhere. He would like to hire Sam to go to Marseille to front for him in the presentation of the bids to the committee. He has chosen Sam, he says during dinner, as he “wiped the last of the avocado puree from his plate with a piece of bread ” because he considers Sam “a top-notch salesman, persuasive, charming, tactful.” The invitation, all expenses paid, includes Sam’s beautiful girlfriend, Elena Morales.

Sam, with Elena in tow, takes on the job and off they go to Marseille, where Sam looks up his old friend, newspaper reporter Philippe. Sam and Elena are housed in a luxurious seaside villa belonging to Reboul (a fact that his competitors never seem to have found out). And the meals begin: tapas at dinner, “ham from acorn-fed pigs in Spain; tuna roe drizzled with olive oil; fried aubergines dusted with mint; tartare of salmon, with honey and dill; deep-fried zucchini flowers; clams, artichokes; monkfish; anchovies — a selection of delights that had them in agonies of indecision.” A dish of ink-fish angel hair pasta with a creamy sauce of goat cheese is “an epiphany for the palate.”

Lunch started with “bresaola with hearts of artichoke, sun-dried tomatoes, and Parmesan. Then, beef cheeks, with a slice of home-made foie gras on top. And a fondant au chocolat.” Elena spends her time “sighing with pleasure” after each meal. In between, she goes shopping with Philippe’s girlfriend in the elegant shops of Marseille.

Meanwhile, Sam goes about his job with style. Philippe obtains information for him about vulgar Lord Wapping, who is desperate for his syndicate to win the competition to save his financial empire. Lord Wapping lives on a yacht named the Floating Pound with his gold-digging girlfriend, two unsavory henchmen, and a sly, unscrupulous adviser. He is a good friend of Patrimonio, and believes he will win the competition thanks to bribes and influence. When he discovers that the members of the committee are not entirely in agreement with how Patrimonio wants them to vote, he resorts to some very dirty tricks — Philippe is ambushed and almost killed; Elena is kidnapped; Sam is threatened; the tent on the beach in which Reboul’s model is to be exhibited is almost burned down.

Needless to say, all ends well and Sam and Elena return to Los Angeles, well fed and considerably richer.

There’s not much tension to the plot, and the dirty tricks are nigh unto unbelievable. The novel and the characters are slight and superficial (except for the food and the city). But “The Marseille Caper” is a short, easy read, and, as always, Mr. Mayle’s affection for Provence, Marseille and its surroundings (such as the Camargue with its wild horses and the pretty port of Cassis) is catching — except when he gets pretentious and, for example, smugly tells his readers that the Manchego cheese served to Sam was “sliced thin, the way it should be.” In sum, the novel is more capers than caper.

• Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington.

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