Perfection in Provence: A review of The Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson

As the great range of hills slumbered in evening shades of rust and indigo, we listened to soupy jazz on the CD player. We’d cook together, drinking rosé and talking in companionable murmurs. Sometimes we’d light the sconce on the wall outside the kitchen. It is a sinister creation: a disembodied arm emerges from a wrought-iron picture frame, extending a candle. It was left by a previous occupant; we would almost certainly not have bought such a grotesque artefact; yet we left it hanging there, and often lit it. Inside and out, pools of light burned from hurricane lamps, candelabras, chandeliers, tea lights, and the rusty lantern we found in the courtyard and used on the dining table on the terrace.

This is the book that led me back. Back to the beauty of the half and half: a dual narrative  with a contemporary story and a historical story; a firm formulaic favourite of mine. It’s just my cup of tea: a lush and sophisticated novel full of sumptuously descriptive language: prose that will totally transport me to its geographical setting and fully immerse me in its emotional atmosphere. This is my ideal read whatever the weather. This is the type of book that deepened my love for sitting alone and delving into the pages of a story.

The Lantern is told in first person by Eve, a twenty-something commercial translator who is swept off her feet by Dom, an entrepreneur turned composer. Dom has a passion to move to the French countryside, so when they find the perfect crumbling farmhouse in Provence, they set up their dream home. However, what begins as a wonderful whirlwind romance quickly turns into an uneasy and increasingly sinister union. Dom has secrets, and his distance from Eve disturbs the whole equilibrium of their perfect life.

It has loud echoes of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca: a naive protagonist cast under the spell of a mysterious older man with skeletons in his closet, and a house filled with ghostly memories of the past desperately trying to escape. Eve is not even our leading lady’s real name as her narrative conveys, drawing explicit parallels with Rebecca’s young narrator. She is overcome with thoughts of Dom’s ex-wife and what happened to her; and her sinister suspicions, along with Dom’s refusal to talk, drive a dangerous wedge between the two. The tension is rife and we are sucked into Eve’s lonely world of unease, trepidation and doubt. Our other leading lady in the historical thread of the narrative is Benedicte, an equally, if not more so, haunted figure. Alone in her memories – if not for her frightening visions and visitations – Benedicte tells the story of her family and her life in the house. At one time it was blissful but gradually she reveals hardships and heartbreak. Benedicte and Eve are connected by location, but they are also drawn together by  mysteries and unresolved rifts in their lives. However, while Eve strives for answers, Benedicte is much more placid and accepting of her situation, making an interesting and curious parallel. 

The Lantern is a spooky story that will appeal to the lover of mystery, ghosts, and old houses. It will pull you in if you love rich, lavish and heavenly descriptions of location and experience. For the greatest joy of The Lantern is it’s sense of place: seeing it, feeling it, smelling it. There are a thousand things I could say about the descriptions in this book, but I’ll leave it at this: I’ve been to Provence and I loved it. Thank you Deborah Lawrenson. 

When I smelled that perfume, I was drawn back helplessly into a sunlit world of Maman’s flaky almond biscuits with a hint of bitter apricot kernel, earth-like cocoa powder clinging to her bare legs, light, warm winds sifting sugared scents from the kitchen where orange mirabelles were being bottled; and on, far beyond the aromatic, to the distant sound of the goat bells, and the whispering of the trees, the butterflies on meadow flowers and the scrubby spikiness of the land underfoot as we chased them, the taste of dried cherries sucked from their pits and of the honeyed nut wine; the soft,  guttered candles waiting on the table in the courtyard where we dined at night, cool at last, a floury embrace before bedtime: all the fragrances in one, of the four months of the year when we all lived outside in the immense wide open valley, a season of warmth and enchantment…

Are you sitting comfortably?: A review of Murder at the Old Vicarage by Jill McGown

He was well enough connected to have secured a living in one of the prettiest villages in England, complete with a vicarage about which anyone might be moved to write poetry. Verdant lawns, bushes, shrubs, climbers; light-filled rooms with elegant lines, and old, good furniture. Wonderful views from its hilltop site, across three counties which today all lay under a shifting blanket of snow.

Do you like a cosy yet gripping whodunit? Is an English country village murder mystery your thing? Yes…? I bring to you Murder at the Old Vicarage by Jill McGown. Light the fire, make a hot drink and snuggle up in your favourite chair for it’s Christmas Eve and snow is falling heavily on the village of Byford when Chief Inspector Lloyd is called to attend a violent death at the vicarage. It soon emerges that the victim is the vicar’s son in law, estranged from his young wife. While it seems the suspects are few, the case proves to be more puzzling than straightforward for both the detectives and the reader. 

First published in 1988 under the title Redemption, this is Jill McGown’s second book featuring Chief Inspector Lloyd and Sergeant Judy Hill. There’s a lovely relationship  between the two detectives, both personally and professionally, and this is a great perk of the book. They are a very good sleuthing team and there’s some fine dialogue from them. McGown creates a strong double act, a duo that between them has the intellect, shrewdness, directness and dedication to solve murky, misleading and baffling mysteries. But it is their love affair which also had me hooked. It seems very genuine despite its complications and it is the catalyst for some truly touching moments.

He watched as Judy worked her way through her copious notes, in which every little puzzle had of course been entered, and he found himself thinking how soft and shining her hair looked, how pleasing the line of her jaw. Unprofessional. He had never admired Sandwell’s hair or Jack Woodford’s jaw-line, fine specimens, though they doubtless were.

Billed as a homage to Agatha Christie, this is indeed a traditional crime story in the sense that it is told sequentially; there are no flashbacks here. The golden age of detective fiction is also emanated by the whole point of the story (though it may sound obvious) being the unraveling of the mystery, and the elements of said mystery being clearly presented at an early stage. Our curiosity is then aroused throughout, with clues offered within the narrative leading to our gratification at the end and the great unveiling. It’s setting also follows the cosy whodunit format, in all its  picturesque snow-covered village glory, with an old isolated vicarage as the crime scene. There’s a non believing vicar with a wandering eye, his dutiful and dedicated wife, their seemingly hapless daughter, and the organ-playing harlot from the church playgroup. Except she’s no harlot, she’s just a woman that the vicar falls for, and this is just one example of how stereotypes are less stereotypical than in the golden age of crime genre. The balance of traditional and modern is just right. There’s no obvious classism which I find rife in Agatha Christie’s work, but there’s also no cringeworthy cop speak that I find abounds in contemporary crime fiction.

The reader is treated to a truly flummoxing whodunit. Who *did* do it? That’s the question we all want the answer to, isn’t it? But we also want to be taken on a riveting and stimulating investigative ride. There is much toing and froing in this investigation and the reader is allowed to feel included in the discussion. Paying attention is vital though! This is part of enjoying a crime mystery – picking up on details and clues that will add to the satisfied feeling at both the case and story’s conclusion.

Does that seem likely to you? He arrives drunk, gets drunker, beats her up, and it all ends happily ever after? Or would have done, if the invisible man hadn’t popped in and murdered him?

So what are you waiting for? Is the kettle on the boil? Is the fire lit? I hear that armchair calling! It’s time to lose yourself in a marvellous murder mystery.