Mystery. Romance. Aix-en-Provence. Le Français. Cézanne. What more could you want in one book? The Mystery of the Lost Cézanne, by M.L. Longworth, is the fifth installment in the Verlaque and Bonnet series. It entertains readers with all of the above, plus a cast of unforgettable characters.
The mystery itself is set in motion with the murder of a retired postman, René Rouquet, who lived in an apartment in Aix in which the most famous son of the city, Paul Cézanne, had once resided. Prior to the murder, M. Rouquet told a former neighbor that he’d discovered a previously unknown painting by Cézanne in the apartment. During the murder investigation, examining magistrate Antoine Verlaque is able to track down the mysterious painting, which indeed has all the earmarks of a Cézanne. Verlaque and his team begin their inquiry into the murder on the assumption that whoever killed M. Rouquet knew abut the Cézanne and had come to steal it. The old man got in the way.
When they find M. Rouquet’s body, they make another surprising discovery. A woman, dubbed “the Beauty” by Verlaque, is hiding in the apartment. She’s Rebecca Schultz, an art history professor at Yale. Commissioned to write a biography of Cézanne, she is in Aix to follow in his footsteps, so to speak. Longworth does an excellent job of giving her an aura of mystery. We don’t quite trust her. She seems guilty one moment, and perfectly innocent the next.
Judge Verlaque’s longtime girlfriend, law professor Marine Bonnet, becomes involved in the case because her father is a Cézanne expert. She and Verlaque have reached a crossroads in their relationship, and it’s unclear which direction it’s going to take. For reasons I didn’t understand, the author chose to play out some of the major scenes between these two appealing and intriguing people off stage.
The book is populated by wonderful characters, and not just those I’ve already mentioned. Police commissioner Bruno Paulik. Marine Bonnet’s father and mother. Art dealer Edmund Lydgate. Fabrizio Orsani, a Mafia boss, possibly involved in the theft and murder. Comandante Barrès, specialist in the realm of stolen art, who fills Verlaque in on all aspects of art theft.
Beginning with Chapter Three, the story switches to the year 1885, and Cézanne himself becomes a featured character. The “lost Cézanne,” discovered in René Rouquet’s apartment, is a painting of a woman. The flashbacks to the nineteenth century develop the relationship between the artist and the woman he painted. Since Cézanne is known primarily for his use of shape and form, it was rather startling to find an undiscovered painting of a woman other than his wife. Everyone who sees the painting agrees that it seems joyous. Was Cézanne smitten? I felt that just when the story between artist and subject was getting interesting, the author cut it off. We find out later what happened, but it was disappointing not to see it play out.
This is the first Verlaque and Bonnet mystery I’ve read. The city of Aix is a character in the book as much as any of the humans. I’ve been there once, and I wasn’t more than a few pages in when I ran to get my travel journal to see what I’d written about the various places mentioned in the book. I loved being able to picture Saint Saveur, the Church of St. John of Malta, the Cours Mirabeau, the plane trees and fountains, as I read. I haven’t looked at my pictures yet, but there will be plenty of time to do that. I intend to read the first four books in the series. I want to find out what all these people were up to in the earlier mysteries!
Image Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington