Susan Kiernan-Lewis,
Toujours Dead
(Abdale Books, 2001)

It's often difficult to review a mystery novel. Plot is the most important aspect of a mystery, yet there's an understandable taboo on revealing too much of it in a review, to avoid spoiling it for future readers. It becomes a problem in a review when there are problems with the plot, since the reviewer cannot discuss them directly, but needs to refer to them.

Toujours Dead is a mystery set in Provence, featuring an American woman who moves there with her French lover when he inherits a vineyard. The house has been the site of a tragedy: 50 years previously, a British family was murdered there, and a local war hero convicted of the deaths. While the villagers seem to have accepted this, they don't seem to believe he was guilty. The mystery arises again when our couple is plagued by threats, vandalism and violence, with clues that point back to the house's history. Subplots involve relationships between people: couples, expatriates, villagers, gypsies and other vineyard owners.

The problem is that none of it holds together very well. Susan Kiernan-Lewis has created potentially interesting characters, set them in an intriguing part of the world, and raised issues in their lives that are potentially fascinating ... and yet, she fulfills the promise of none of them.

There are passages describing the location, its landscape, buildings and something of its social structure. The rest of the time, though, Provence is not evoked. Apart form the descriptions, there's very little that would site the story there and nowhere else. I'm not enough of a writer to know the technical aspects of what's missing, but I am enough of a reader to recognize the lack.

The characters are, if possible, even vaguer than the location. All seem to exist more as plot elements than as individuals, and obediently do what is required by the plot with little regard to any underlying core of personality. Mannerisms and the occasional idiosyncracy are no substitute for humanity. While this is aggravating in a pure mystery, it's counter-productive when sub-plots involve the personal relationships of these ciphers. Why is Maggie (our heroine) with Laurent, except that they think each other attractive? Why does she love him enough to move with him to France, leaving family and career behind? And while Kiernan-Lewis tells us that Grace and Windsor have a strong marriage, they don't show much signs of it -- even before the plot requires an estrangement. And as one moves away from the book's central characters, behavior gets increasingly arbitrary and inexplicable, until the resolution, when an unexpected person turns out to be violently insane, is met with a shrug. None of the characters have an individual speaking voice, either, although that's probably a result of their embryonic development. The dialogue is oddly random, particularly in extended scenes. Since I think that the best mysteries are those in which the plot stems inevitably as a result of the characters of the people involved, I found this book to be backwards in its emphasis.

Laurent's vineyard and the wine it produces are important to the plot, although not central. It is therefore a shame that Kiernan-Lewis does not seem to understand the wine-making process. I brew beer mostly, although we have made some wine, and I can vouch that six weeks is a reasonable time period for a decent beer to move from brewing to drinking. I have never heard of a wine that is even drinkable in such a short period -- certainly not one made from just-picked grapes. And yet Laurent manages to not only produce drinkable wine in that time, but fine wine! Wine worthy of export! If Kiernan-Lewis had restricted the presence of this fabulous wine in the plot I could have overlooked it, but it keeps appearing and in various ways contributing to the plot's momentum. Since it is so important to the story, it's too bad that it's so implausible.

The publishers say "We feel this author will find her readership in those people -- probably mostly women -- who love adventure, a good mystery, and anything French! It's a big book-perfect for a summer beach book." This is probably true. A requirement for a "beach book" seems to be that it not be particularly taxing or involving, and stimulate a mild interest. Toujours Dead may meet those criteria for some readers. I prefer to spend my time with books in which the characters or location are realistically evoked so I can vicariously experience things that are not in my normal life. Toujours Dead, while not a bad book, was thus a disappointment to me.

[ by Amanda Fisher ]



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