- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

   By Peter Steiner
   St. Martin’s Minotaur, $23.95, 246 pages
   There’s a certain je ne sais quoi about a brutal murder in a peaceful country setting, a reminder perhaps that our lives, no matter how tranquil, are never perfectly safe. Consider the case of Louis Morgon, former CIA-State Department liaison, whose day usually starts with coffee, baguette and marmalade on the terrace of his home in rural France. Beyond is a sublime view of fields of sunflowers under a sky of “that particular blue which endures right down to the horizon, a color so intense and deep that you can feel the blackness of outer space behind it.”
   It sounds like heaven on earth and it is … until the morning that Morgon on the way to his sunny terrace finds a corpse, its throat neatly slit from ear to ear, on his doorstep. He telephones the one-man police force, his friend Jean Renard, who sets in motion an investigation that reaches all the way back to “the sordid world,” Morgon’s shorthand phrase for the messy life he left behind in Washington, D.C.
   He has no wish to be reminded of that time of deception and treachery or the back stabbing that ended his career at the CIA. Deciding that living — and eating — well is the best revenge, he’s bought a house in a small French town, taken up painting and cooking, planted a vegetable garden, acquired a French mistress. With the arrival of the corpse the sixtyish expatriate senses that his idyllic way of life is in danger, possibly his very existence.
   So begins “A French Country Murder,” by Peter Steiner, the slyly funny cartoonist whose work appears in the New Yorker, the Weekly Standard and this newspaper. Like his protagonist, Mr. Steiner has a house in France and paints, posing a second (minor) mystery: How much of the Morgon character is Steiner?
   Early on Morgon guesses the identity of the murderer — and so do we. Consequently the mystery is not about whodunnit, or even why, but rather why this murder at this time? That question is most satisfyingly answered over the next 200 or so pages in which Louis returns to Washington, meets again the ex-wife he hasn’t seen for years and his two estranged children, revisits the State Department (where he has a Kafka-esque confrontation with twitchy security guards), contemplates the possibility of his own death, and devises a risky plan to avoid it.
   A key witness is kidnapped, and the dramatic denouement at Charles DeGaulle Airport is a cliff-hanger guaranteed to please cloak-and-dagger and mystery buffs alike.
   This novel — Steiner’s first — is not your typical mystery or espionage thriller, although it contains elements of both genres. The complex personal relationships tied to Louis —who is intelligent, self-centered, flawed — are as important as the plot. We learn about his failed career and marriage in a series of flashbacks in which Mr. Steiner by no means absolves his main character of blame. Louis is reading “Anna Karenina” for the first time so it seems natural that Tolstoy’s well-known opening about happy and unhappy families triggers his first plunge into the past.
   New insights into his former profession accompany his memories. Although he had been ambitious as a young man, “Louis now gauged the depth of his obliviousness, his staggering naivete, by the fact that he had preferred working at CIA headquarters in Langley, to working at the State Department in Foggy Bottom.” After his betrayal he questions the effect of a life of spying on the personality. “Despite the secretive and duplicitous nature of their business, he had found the people at CIA headquarters possessed of a peculiar and eccentric innocence …They all seemed to believe that they could make deceit and intrigue their livelihood and still lead normal lives.”
   The other characters are a varied lot, from gendarme Renard, a small-town Inspector Maigret, to Solesme Lefourier, Louis’ outspoken, down-to-earth mistress, to a powerful Washington bureaucrat, a future American Secretary of State (which one does Steiner have in mind I wonder?) who Louis once found in bed with his wife.
   Oddly it’s not the cuckolded husband, but the adulterous lover who is the humiliated party and who bears a grudge against Louis for years — a reversal that is not entirely convincing. True, that future State Department big shot is pudgy and unattractive, but readers may wonder why he doesn’t simply rejoice in his good fortune at overcoming these handicaps (as any sensible Frenchman would) instead of being filled with self-loathing. After all, what’s a little flab if power is the ultimate aphrodisiac?
   This incident and the decades-long resentment it inspires are instructive of the differences between French and American attitudes to sex, as is a second bedroom scene, notable for truth telling, in Louis’ house in France.
   “Do all Americans have such peculiar notions about marriage and love?” Solesme asks Louis after he wonders out loud where their affair might be heading. “You seem to imagine that every passion must eventually become public, that it must be officially sanctioned. In fact everything always seems to have to lead somewhere for you. What a busy and purposeful people you are. This has already taken us where it is taking us. The fact that it might not be going anywhere else, does that frighten you?” (It does, but only a little and not for long.)
   In these parlous times I hope that it isn’t doing the author a disservice to point out that his love affair with France and all things French is everywhere evident. In an early flashback Louis retraces his long hike from Paris to Spain on his first visit to France, allowing Mr. Steiner to include lyrical descriptions of the French countryside and a brief history of ‘la musette,’ the nostalgia-driven dance music played on an accordion that for many foreigners still symbolizes France.
   Not least, Mr. Steiner’s characters are constantly serving up mouthwateringly good French meals (rabbit cooked in red wine with garlic and shallots; roast pork with prunes and spinach; coquilles St. Jacques with roasted potatoes) that made me want to stop reading and start cooking. Or go back to France.
   Lorna Williams writes in Washington and southern France.


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