The Marseille Caper by Peter Mayle

Peter Mayle has almost single-handedly defined an idyllic, affectionate, gently humorous image of the rural South of France in the public imagination with his A Year in Provence series and multiple spin-offs. logoClick here to book a hotel in Provence

More recently, however, he has turned his hand to urban thrillers - also set in his "patch" of France, of course. The latest is The Marseille Caper, and you can buy it on Amazon here.

The plot brings back Sam Levitt, the former corporate lawyer turned fixer extraordinaire of Mayle's The Vintage Caper. In this sequel, Levitt is approached by Francis Reboul, the very same silken-tongued charmer whom Levitt had successfully cheated out of a large haul of fine wine in the previous novel.

In spite of this, Reboul now, for reasons never fully explained, wants the lawyer to be his accomplice in a mysterious, possibly illegal property deal.

And so Levitt - normally based in Los Angeles - goes on what amounts to an extended holiday in Marseille with his gorgeous Latina girlfriend.

In between the well-oiled business meetings, they stay in a villa overlooking the sea, go shopping, have very many drinks of all descriptions and, above all, dine out handsomely twice a day, with the meals all described in mouth-watering detail.

Peter MayleThis is a very, very light version of the Marseille noir crime thriller genre beloved of local French novelists. Mayle, pictured, knows just what his readers want and delivers it smoothly.

His Marseille is populated with luscious women of all ages and improbably well-clothed men. Even the local journalist for La Provence newspaper is dressed by Tom Ford.

The action of The Marseille Caper is mainly set in the first, second and sixth arrondissements of Marseille, in other words the Old Port, the Old Town and the well-heeled coastal area along the Corniche JF Kennedy.

Don't expect any Arab names or black faces, apart from a comic maid, or forays to Belsunce, the Cours Julien, the Vélodrome (which is a pity: it would surely have been amusing to read Mayle's impressions of an Olympique de Marseille match) or to the fast-expanding Euroméditerranée district.

The action unfolds on the eve of Marseille-Provence's turn as European Capital of Culture in 2013 and is inspired by the property boom which this supposedly triggers. But in reality it could be set at almost any time.

On the plus side, the book avoids that tired old Marseille stereotype, the local mafioso and/or drug baron - to which we must now add a third stock villain, the bent cop, after the events of autumn 2012 when some 30 Marseille policemen were arrested for extorting cash and drugs from the city's criminal underworld.

Au contraire, the chief bad guys in The Marseille Caper are old-school, thick-eared London East End gangsters - their leader is even a bookie named Wapping! And it's good to see Mayle leaving la Provence profonde for more unfamiliar urban territory, even if you do sense that he is operating outside his comfort zone.

When he does decide to describe Marseille itself, his enthusiasm shines through. In one of several passages on the Vieille Charité, for example, he evokes "the chapel - the alcoves around the side, each with its graceful arch and marble statue, the lovely proportions of the room, the high dome ceiling, the soft evening light filtering through the high windows."

It would have been good if his characters had spent a bit more time out and about and less time tucking into vast repasts. Mayle's forte is the vivid sketch and vignette, but the plot of The Marseille Caper never gets off the starting blocks.

But no-one ever read Mayle's books for edgy insights. What The Marseille Caper offers is pleasurable escapism and some droll observations - sometimes sharp, sometimes clichéd - on local mores and the differences between the Marseillais, the Parisians, the British and the Americans.

No prizes for guessing where his sympathies lie. The Marseille Caper is the perfect fantasy read if you're planning a trip to the South of France, or a rose-tinted souvenir if you've already been here. Buy The Marseille Caper on Amazon here.


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