- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 6, 2009

By Peter Mayle
Knopf, $24.95, 240 pages

A trip to France for 25 dollars? No, it’s not a super-discount on Air France, it’s a book, another Peter Mayle flight of fancy to his beloved adopted country. And while it may not be first class from a literary standpoint, it’s a smooth ride you’ll enjoy from beginning to end, especially if you’re into flights of fantasy. An ex-pat Brit, Mr. Mayle, who turned 70 in June, hit it big back in 1989 with the enormously successful and very enjoyable “A Year in Provence.” But it was hardly his first book. While still an advertising executive, he’d begun writing books, specializing in books for children that were not, in the traditional sense, children’s books. As a sampling of the titles indicates — “Where Did I Come From?,” “Will I Go to Heaven?,” “Will I Like It?: Your First Sexual Experience,” “As Dead as a Dodo,” and “Grown-ups and Other Problems: Help for Small People in a Big World” — he was trying to help young people cope with very real problems.

Perhaps as a psychic countermeasure, Mr. Mayle’s adult fiction took on a wonderfully escapist tone. “A Year in Provence,” his first novel, was heavily autobiographical, reflecting the dream he and his wife, both of whom had loved the south of France for years, had made real. When the book came out, the publisher printed only 3,000 copies, but when those sold quickly, he printed another 1,500 and then it took off, selling a million copies of the paperback in England alone. The author estimates that, eventually, “A Year in Provence” has sold between five and six million copies.

Half of Mr. Mayle’s books since then have been novels with the same or similar settings (why change a formula that works so well?) The Vintage Caper” is out of the same imaginary vineyard that produced all those other fine wines. Danny Roth, the heavy in this piece, is a rich Los Angleles lawyer, which means, seeing as the novel’s attitude is French, that he’s also obnoxious, right? Right. Roth has a world class wine cellar, but, in a moment of weakness (and vanity) he invites the Los Angeles Times to do an article on his collection, and before you can say Two Buck Chuck, he’s a robbery victim.

The heist, which takes place on Christmas Eve, is no ordinary theft. The thief, ignoring lesser treasures, knew exactly what to take: the ‘61 Latour, the ‘83 Margaux, the ‘70 Petrus, etc., all in all some 500 bottles. Sacre bleu! (Or some other French words to that effect.) Turns out it was an inside job in more ways than one. While Roth was away skiing in Aspen, for a bribe of 50,000 dollars, his caretaker let the thieves in, and hours later, when they had carefully loaded their van, they gave him a ride down the road, where he hopped out, never to be seen again.

Roth immediately contacts his insurance company and, even though he only paid the premium for coverage of 2.3 million dollars, he demands a 3 million dollar reimbursement. The company decides that before paying the increasingly insistent and annoying Roth it will do its own investigation.

Enter Sam Levitt. Prior to becoming a free lance, high-priced investigator, the debonair Levitt, trained as a lawyer, was a kind of Barrister of Fortune. Bored with corporate law, he turned to crime, but only the non-violent Pinkish Pantherish kind, but when that landed him in a Congolese jail (with a broken nose and three cracked ribs) he went straight, and then straight to Paris. In France, he indulged himself by taking a six-month course at the Universite du Vin at Souze-la-Rousse. Roth’s insurance company knew Sam’s background, and hired him to investigate the theft.

That set-up takes only a few chapters, and then it’s off to Bordeux and Provence, where Sam visits the major vineyards to see if any other collectors have been asking about the same wines that were stolen from Danny Roth. And of course the insurance company rep who helps him is a beautiful French woman, a Madame Sophie Costes, so that de rigeur element is added.

Sophie enlists the help of her cousin Phillipe, a larger than life Maresilles-based journalist who sees intrigue behind every leaf, and who eagerly joins in Sam’s semi-devious efforts to crack the case. By this time, Sam and Sophie have a suspect, an enormously wealthy Frenchman, and armed with Phillipe’s research and privileged information, they come up wth a plan to see if he is indeed the culprit.

In the meantime, one has to eat and drink, n’est ce pas? And do they ever, this being a Peter Mayle book. On one of their first meals together, Sophie notices that Sam does something she finds familiar: “’ You’re like my grandfather. He always picked the wine first, and then the food.’

“‘Smart guy … Look what I found — an ‘85 Lynch-Bages. How can we not have that? … Now what would your grandfather eat to go with it?’”

“Sophie closed her menu. ‘No question. Breast of duck, cooked pink, perhaps some oysters to start, with another glass of champagne?’”

When the moveable feast moves to Marseilles, and Phillipe is picking the restaurants, the gastronomy continues. For lunch, he tells Sam and Sophie, “‘Bresaola to start, with hearts of artichoke, sun-dried tomatoes, and Parmesan. Then the beef cheeks, which they do here with a slice of foie gras on top. And a fondue au chocolat. That will see us through until dinner. Trust me.’” (I would.) The discourses on the courses and the vintages are a fine complement to the action, which moves to a resolution so smooothly that the reader is almost surprised to find him or herself on the last page. Mayle has this kind of story down cold. His characters may be a bit predictable and stiff (Phillipe has so much cardboard in his character that you could tape him and ship him) but that doesn’t really diffuse the pleasure.

Peter Mayle’s love of France is infectious. When an intervewer once asked him how France had affected his work and life, he replied, “It’s inspired it. If I didn’t have France I probably wouldn’t be able to do anything. It’s made me more observant, more relaxed, and I hope that comes across in my writing. It’s made me just a more peaceful guy.”

Only a Francophone wouldn’t enjoy this trip.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer and critic.

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