2012; 233 pages. New Author? : Yes. Genre : Historical Mystery; Murder Mystery. Overall Rating : 7*/10.
For California historian Pandora (“Dory”) Ryan, it is an amazing find. There, in the musty shelves of Avignon’s Archives de Vaucluse, she comes across a centuries-old diary of a local nun. It is truly a noteworthy find, since nuns were forbidden to keep diaries in the Middle Ages; writing about one’s life was viewed as a sin of pride.
Unfortunately, the diary cuts off in mid-sentence, almost like someone didn’t want the ending to be read. Now, hundreds of years later, where could one even hope to find the rest of the narrative? And besides some strange goings-on in the convent (the Mother Superior is entirely too fond of self-flagellation), the diary speaks of a murder of one of the sisters.
So it is quite a shock to Dory, when one her fellow, modern-day researchers, Sister Agatha, dies on-the job, since she too was a nun at the still-in-operation Our Lady of Mercy convent. It happened right there at the Archives, in a back room, while everyone else was engaged in their various research projects.
Well, except for one of them, who apparently was busy murdering Sister Agatha, since her death is anything but an accident.
What’s To Like...
A Provençal Mystery is an ambitious tale of murders and mysteries, spanning three different time periods – 1944, 1990, and 1659. Ann Elwood’s descriptions of Provençe in those three eras is quite good, albeit the 1944 Nazi-occupied one is brief, and the 17th-Century one is by-and-large limited to the confines of the convent. But I frankly had no trouble following the three plotlines as the story jumped from one to another.
For both murder-mysteries, Ann Elwood introduces us to a variety of characters, and kind of allows them to take turns being the prime suspects in the two cases. The book is almost completely in the first person – Dory in 1990, and Sister Rose, the diary-keeper, in 1659.
The story takes place entirely in the Provençe section of France, and I'm always partial to that setting. The author sprinkles in a lot of French phrases, which is also a plus, although they felt awkward a lot of the time. And suspect. When one character said, “Je suis Martin Fitzroy”, I winced. The correct French expression is “Je m’appelle Martin Fitzroy.” True, Mr. Fitzroy is an American, so he might be excused for the slip, but anyone’s who taken French 101 will know the proper way to introduce oneself.
There is a supernatural element that seems to tie the two murders together. But while it certainly intrigued me, it is never fully resolved. Ditto for some plot holes. Including a literal one. At one point, Dory excavates a wall in the convent. But apparently it gets overlooked by the convent nuns.
Kewlest New Word…
Insouciance (n.) : a casual lack of concern; indifference.
Professor Martin Fitzroy. A handsome and formidable man, who knew he was a handsome and formidable man. He marched up to Chateaublanc’s desk with what I could only call an “air” – an air of superiority, an air of expecting that superiority to be recognized. It was clear that he knew all too well that he was eminent. I had read his books on the history of purgatory and knew that he deserved his eminence. He had broken new ground and done it with elegance. (loc. 1177)
Academics frown on genealogists – they are too interested in the stories of their own families. Doing history is not supposed to be about telling stories, unless you are an antiquarian, who by definition has no talent for theory, and there is nothing worse than that. Historians look down upon antiquarians and genealogists because they never, in historians’ minds, wrestle with “big ideas.” (loc. 2067)
A Provençal Mystery presently sells for $4.99 at Amazon. Ann Elwood has a bunch of other books available, but most of them are not in e-book format. Of the few that are available for the Kindle, none appear to be in this genre.
“There is something strange about a religion that saves the body parts of dead holy people and encases them in boxes.” (loc. 3608)
There are some weaknesses. The ending seems rushed, and lacking any twists. It’s simply a matter of one of the several plausible motives/suspects panning out in the main plotline. The perpetrator needlessly leaves a lot of clues around, and seems too easily persuaded to confess. It's as if he wants to be caught.
The 1659 murder is never fully resolved, although realistically that’s kinda expected. Still, this is fiction, the storyline links the two crimes, and as a reader, I was anticipating a resolution of some sort.
Finally, the book is in bad need of an editor. I tend to forgive spellchecker errors (loose/lose, for/fro, etc.), but when one of the diary entries gets the year wrong, that’s just sloppiness. And yet…
For all the negatives, I still found myself staying up late and turning the pages to get in just one more chapter. The story and its writing may have some flaws, but the fact that it’s so ambitious apparently drew me in.
7 Stars. This book wasn’t what I expected it to be. I sorta assumed it was going to be akin to a Brother Cadfael mystery, entirely set in the distant past. But it’s still a worthwhile read, especially if you have a soft spot in your heart for all things French, like I do.