There are times when it seems that everyone is writing a book about the exact same thing. From out of nowhere comes a wave of novels with “piano” or “water” or “Tuscan” in the title, or a tsunami of thrillers about magicians or dwarves or affable vampires.
This year it’s books about France. Who can say why? Maybe it’s because collapsing economies have stripped the romance from Greece, Italy and Spain. Whatever the cause, three recent releases capture this Gallic renaissance with varying degrees of success.
Martin Walker’s Black Diamond is a mystery set in the French countryside that reveals a facet of France — the fierce rivalries among newly arrived immigrant groups from Asia — of which few Americans are aware. Walker is the former editor-in-chief of UPI, and Black Diamond is the third installment in his series featuring Bruno Courrèges, a tough provincial police chief who also happens to be an enthusiastic chef and wine lover. The action hinges on a violent feud between Chinese and Vietnamese gangs vying for control of the Dordogne region’s vaunted truffle industry. You may not applaud Walker’s prose, but you have to admire his inventiveness: Crime novels featuring Sino-Viet disputes in the heart of the French truffle world are as rare as horse operas set in Lourdes.
One day, an old hunter chum of Bruno’s is found brutally murdered. A bon vivant, raconteur and truffle buff par excellence, the dead man was also an intelligence agent heavily involved in some of the more sordid foreign escapades in modern French history. Clearly, this is no burglary gone awry. As the story rolls along, a feud between a despicable aging industrialist and his too-good-to-be-true environmentalist son provides an engaging parallel narrative to the tale of the Asian gang war. A couple of femmes fatales spice up the action, and there’s a brothel specializing in orphans. (At this point, you get the feeling that the author is kind of piling it on.)
Instructive details abound on French food, hunting and history, but the dialogue is uninspired and the descriptive prose is sometimes quite painful: “He was accustomed to a blaze of passion, spending each night with a new lover and plunging into the relationship as if he were diving headlong into a river.” Sacre bleu, Monsieur Walkère! Nor is Bruno the sharpest couteau in the tiroir. Readers will spot the villain in this tale long before he does. But a mystery needn’t be letter-perfect to be enjoyable, and the unusual setting for Walker’s novel gives it an edge over generic whodunits set in Los Angeles, New York or the English countryside. I wouldn’t necessarily read every entry in this series, but I’m glad I read this one.
You’d be forgiven for assuming that a book titled The House in France features an actual house in France. Gully Wells’s memoir of that name does touch on the house in Provence where she spent many a summer with her mother, the acerbic journalist Dee Wells, who was born in Rhode Island but made her name as a broadcaster and newspaper columnist in England. Yet she spends the bulk of her ferociously self-involved narrative persuading you how fabulous her life has been.
Wells, a features editor at Condé Nast Traveler, is a talented writer without much to say — in this book, at any rate. Most of the action occurs offstage, in trendy milieus such as London, New York, Oxford and Paris. That leaves precious little to transpire in the house named La Migoua — haunted to this day, says Wells, by memories of her mother. Instead the writing focuses mainly on Gully’s brilliant stepfather — the predatory, satyr-like philosopher A. J. Ayer — and all the bright young things who lit up her childhood, among them novelist Martin Amis (who is just plain brilliant, Wells pauses frequently to remind us). A compulsive name-dropper — Did I tell you about running into Iris Murdoch? Or the party where I met Isaiah Berlin? — Wells constantly reminds us of her mother’s outrageous cleverness but supplies little evidence for it, leaving at least one main character from The House in France never fully realized.
Another house in France — and quite a strange one at that — dominates The Lantern by British journalist Deborah Lawrenson. The novel is really two stories woven into one: a classic romantic yarn in the Rebecca tradition about a woman who meets Mr. Right and then begins to sense he’s Mr. Wrong, plus a harrowing ghost story set decades earlier. All this takes place in a house with the mellifluous moniker of Les Genévriers (The Juniper Trees).
When Eve, the English heroine of The Lantern, first meets the mysterious Dom while traveling in Switzerland, then moves into an abandoned manse they buy together in Provence, she’s understandably sure she’s found happiness. But ripples of uncertainty soon appear: Young female hitchhikers have been turning up dead in the region, and there is reason to believe that Dom may be involved. One strange coincidence follows another. Worse still, Les Genévriers appears to be haunted by the ghost of at least one dead woman, and possibly more.
As if that’s not enough, Dom’s previous wife disappeared under mysterious circumstances. So Eve finds herself in vintage Jane Eyre territory, smitten by a mysterious stranger who may not be all — or who may be much more than — he appears to be. And trapped in a spooky house. Where his spooky wife used to live.
Heureusement for Eve, all this weirdness unfolds in one of the most beautiful spots on the face of Earth, so she toughs it out. Meanwhile, the narrative switches back and forth between her love affair with Dom and the adventures of a peasant girl named Bénédicte who lived in the house many years before. This too involves a murder. And a ghost. From time to time the ghost contacts Bénédicte, and from time to time some spectral figure tries to contact Eve. It may be Bénédicte—mon Dieu!
Though Bénédicte is an untutored peasant, she’s a bit quicker on the uptake than Eve. Her story is more compelling, too. Oddly enough, this juxtaposition makes The Lantern highly readable. Just when you’ve had enough of Eve’s insecurity and her inability to get a read on Dom, the story backpedals a few decades to the more engaging tale of Bénédicte, her blind perfumière sister, and their evil brother. In the end, that means you get two ghost stories for the price of one.
Lawrenson’s writing style — sensual, verging on florid — works well with this subject matter. “For about five days that first August, the hills bruised purple under black clouds,” she writes. That’s a perfect description of the French countryside. So is this: “They say this region was once under the ocean, many millions of years ago, that the rocks were shaped by the tides, and the stones contain outlines of forgotten sea creatures from the dawn of time. I would say there are days when all history stands still and all the spirits gather.”
So if you’re a fan of Franco-phantoms or despicable denizens of the Dordogne, you can’t go wrong with The Lantern or Black Diamond. If, on the other hand, you long to read a book about a French house that takes place primarily in English apartments, the Wells memoir could be just what le médecin ordered.
Joe Queenan is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal and the author of, among many other books, Closing Time: A Memoir and Balsamic Dreams: A Short But Self-Important History of the Baby Boomer Generation. He spent a year in Paris under an Alliance Française scholarship in 1972.