“Anything Considered” (1996) was purchased at an estate sale toward the end of last summer, along with a framed print of a dragonfly. I promptly found a place on the wall over the back room piano for the dragonfly, but I didn’t get around to reading my first Peter Mayle book (the author of, as the book covers repeat, “A Year in Provence,” which I’ve not read) until the holidays. I liked “Anything Considered,” and on a Powell’s run before Christmas found three more Mayle books in good used condition. The four read are what might be loosely described as mystery books, crime fiction, though the plots are not hard-boiled, not even soft-boiled, but over easy, poached, or sunny side up.
Indeed, the sun is a character in the southern French settings where Mayle’s mysteries are cooked, the plots as convoluted as French cuisine. Typically, the main character is a self-imposed outsider, disaffected with bourgeois standards, but not hostile to its spoils, inveigling his way in and out of capers involving an array of likable and despicable characters, though these labels don’t always identify the good and bad guys. Femmes arrive, though not of the fatale type, after a spell, and the plots are continually interrupted by structured meals with plenty of cheeses and wines. The writing is full of atmosphere created by descriptions of weather and water, food and drink, furniture and clothes, structures and landscapes. Much of the action takes place outdoors. The tone is often sarcastic, in places ribald. The plots move the characters out of Provence, to London or Paris, and the contrast has everyone, reader included, wanting to get back into the sun.
Of the four read, “Anything Considered” is the longest and most detailed, and contains the most sinister villain. I then read “Hotel Pastis” (1993), the funniest of the four, slapstick, even, with a primary dual running plot that weaves around and up and down like a bicycle ride through the countryside – actually, that is part of the plot. “Chasing Cezanne” (1997) adds art to the cheeses and wines, and “The Vintage Caper” (2009) adds a Hollywood flair to the mix.
But if I’ve not interested readers in the Mayle books, perhaps the dragonfly will satisfy: