On stools next to a window of tiny Book in Bar bookstore, I sip coffee with mystery writer M. L. Longworth. As we chat, passersby stop to smile and greet her, as if she were a neighbor in this most exquisite of Aix’s many historic neighborhoods. Which for many years she was. Now, even though she lives in a rural village, her heart still belongs to Aix, while her identity has become multicultural—French-European with North-American roots. Born in Canada,, she and her husband left Santa Cruz, California, for a sudden job offer in Provence seventeen years ago and did what many ex-pats dream of doing: They stayed.
Along the way, their daughter grew up, Mary Lou began teaching and writing free-lance articles, landed a dream job teaching creative writing for New York University in Paris—and created the irresistible, passionate and quarrelling couple– handsome Judge Antoine Verlaque and gorgeous Law Professor Marine Bonnet–as Provence’s go-to crime-busting team. In 2011, Penquin Books published “Death at the Château Bremont,” the first in the “Verlaque & Bonnet Provençal Mystery” series. Coming out at the rate of about one a year, the fifth one is due in the fall.
Since they are mysteries, naturally the stories have intricate plots, which, Mary Lou says, she sometimes changes during the writing. “I think, hmm, it would be more interesting if THAT one were the murderer.”
But I was curious about whether she starts there, with plot, or with place or characters. “Both place and characters. Since I was writing travel pieces, the first one was based more on place” – the alluring château set near the hamlet of St.-Antonin on the way up to Mont-Ste.-Victoire. “But later, they are more based on characters…The only thing set from the beginning of the series was the relationship between Verlaque and Bonnet.”
“Which at first seems rather tortured,” I note.
“Yes,” she smiles. “But it keeps evolving. Getting better.” That is a nice feature, she goes on, of having a long story arc over several novels, giving the characters the chance to develop. “They are organic; they age.”
Since Aix and the surrounding country is rich in art, architecture, history and its timeless intrigues, Mary Lou evokes the past from a deep archive of knowledge. But the fun of reading these books, and what makes them smart and timely, is that they’re also very much set in contemporary Aix and its environs. The historic Cours Mirabeau, its famous café, Les Deux Garçons, the imposing Palais de Justice, Saint-Sauveur Cathedral, and all the surrounding cobbled streets come alive with tidbits of current affairs: the most fashionable tailor, the finest butcher shop, the best bookstore, or the great place for cheese on the rue d’Italie. And that doesn’t even get to restaurants, nor the wine and the food, those twin French obsessions.
No place better to learn what’s in and what’s out these days than from the crackling quips of the characters—the epicure Verlanque who often despairs at his brainy, green-eyed girlfriend’s déclassé eating habits; while Marine herself disapproves of her own mother’s predilection for shopping in—quelle horreur—supermarkets, and is easily led to drinking cocktails with her gal pal, sleek photographer Slylvie, whose own reading runs to gossip rags and fashion design…. The clues are endless.
So, I have to ask. With this rich array of characters and places, are they mainly “real,” or mainly made up?
Mary Lou laughs. “Both. Many are based on people I know, or mixtures of them. But people often ask if Marine is really me. No! Verlaque, who is tall, opinionated, sometimes a snob, loves Philip Larkin and fine wine and cigars—that’s based on me,” she says. And she reminds me of her membership as the only female in an exclusive Aixois cigar club.
“Marine, who doesn’t know she is beautiful, is refreshingly honest and is working on a book about the relationship between Sartre and de Beauvoir– she is not me. But she does live in my old apartment.” That would be the one down the street from Book in Bar in the exclusive Mazarin Quarter with the music from the Fountain of the Four Dolphins in the background, and the sun reflecting its rose light off the façade of the neighborhood’s venerable church, St. Jean-de-Malte, onto the terrace.
I have to tell Mary Lou how much fun it has been to discover this present-day town and all its fashions through her books, what a great guide she has been to places I have also discovered, and to many I may never achieve. Her murders, echoing the kind of town Aix is, tend to take place in the most upscale venues: a château, of course; an exclusive vineyard; the palatial apartment of a retiring theology professor; a five-star hotel on a private Mediterranean island.
It’s hard to imagine what will come next. But I do know that it will be served up with flair, and champagne, like a feast fit for Verlaque. Red snapper ceviche shooters, for example, to be followed by roast bass in olive oil, mussels and cherry tomatoes; then a rack of grilled lamb, stir-fry summer vegetables, wasabi purée and cilantro-mint vinaigrette…Mary Lou snaps me back from a delicious scene out of “Murder on the Ile Sordou.”
“You wanted to know about the next one,” she says. “It’s called ‘The Mystery of the Lost Cézanne.’ It will come out in September.”
In September, I will read it in California, where instead of walking the streets of Aix with Verlaque and Bonnet, I will remember them with delight.