Those gloomy walled cemeteries outside small French towns, decaying under shady cypresses, catch the imagination of the traveller. Pierre Magnan's latest piece of Provençal gothic invites us to stop and enter one such place - at our peril. For this cemetery, in the mountainous country of Upper Provence, has a postbox on its gate. An unstamped letter falls into the hands of a helpful local, who stamps and posts it. The recipient, a music teacher, is promptly murdered, pinned to her piano by a bayonet.
This beginning pulls the reader straight into Magnan's rich world, full of complex characters: the retired captain who never wants another glimpse of the sea, the families who fight one another for inheritances. And welcome back to Magnan's errant and eccentric investigators, the melancholy Judge Chabrand and the cat-loving retired superintendent Laviolette, whom we find roasting chestnuts in his Villa Popocatapetl.
Together, they embark on tracking down the murderer, as letter follows letter and in each case the recipient ends up in the cemetery.
The story takes us back to the 19th century, to a time when a poverty-stricken doctor travelled the valleys by mule. Something of great value is hidden in the history of a local family, concealed in what seems a pile of worthless junk. The author has developed a cunning sleight-of-hand in thrusting a key clue under the reader's nose, yet disguising it. Veteran reader of crime fiction though I am, I didn't guess correctly.
But the atmosphere is most to be relished. The lavishly complicated plot unfolds among spine-tingling descriptions of remote Provence: not the tourist paradise, the real place, with "huge galleries with bare timbers full of the raucous wind", and simmering vats of pigs' mash. This not a land running with milk, honey and Ambre Solaire, but one where the cruel east wind causes people and animals to huddle together.
What really motivates the book is the author's love of this world, as expressed through Laviolette, for whom the stunted apple trees in this harsh countryside speak of love in a land that gets the better of those who try to cultivate it.
The themes are traditional in such a setting - peasant avarice and vengeance - and the book extremely French in its lack of Anglo-Saxon moral judgement. I cannot think of a murder story set in an English village where a judge recognises one of the characters by her pubic hair.
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