Given that Inspector Littlejohn is a detective working for Scotland Yard he spends a surprisingly large amount of his time solving mysteries on French soil. I previously reviewed Death Spins the Wheel which saw him make a short fact-finding trip across the channel but Death in High Provence is the first I have read where he is investigating a crime abroad.
In this novel Littlejohn is approached by the British Minister of Commerce whose brother had died in a car accident in Provence. The Police quickly ruled it an accident but the Minister feels that something is suspicious and wants some answers. Being concerned about causing a diplomatic incident the minister asks Littlejohn to visit the area in an unofficial capacity to obtain some evidence of foul play so he can get the investigation reopened.
Littlejohn and his wife travel to the quiet village of St. Marcellin under the less-than-convincing pretense of being travel writers. They try to befriend some of the locals to find out more about the death but the few who do share information disappear…
Because we can already guess much of what Littlejohn discovers in the opening third of the novel its early chapters of the novel concentrating on establishing an atmosphere. Some of this is giving a sense of life in the rustic, decaying village but it is also about building our understanding of the almost feudal relationships that still exist there and that the answers to the recent crime lies in the village’s past.
I have written appreciatively in the past of Bellairs’ ability to write about rural communities and that same skill is very much in evidence here. The descriptions of the landscape and the buildings when they first arrive are rich and wonderfully detailed giving the sense that he is describing real places and people. I really enjoy the small details that pepper the early chapters like the negotiations that have to take place between Littlejohn and the hotel proprietor about when they will have a bath and whether the water will be hot or cold.
Death in High Provence is quite a strange book structurally because the reader begins the novel already aware or at least strongly suspecting the answers to the questions Littlejohn is investigating. To give an example, I doubt that any reader will seriously believe that the deaths were really the result of a car accident and it will soon be clear to the reader who is manipulating the villagers into keeping quiet.
This choice gives the novel some of the texture of an inverted mystery novel and yet I think that would be a misleading label (not least because it is only very strongly implied rather than confirmed in the text). While we know who is behind the conspiracy of silence that does not necessarily equate to knowing the identity of the killer, their motives or exactly what was done. What it does do however is establish a tension that will run throughout the novel and give Littlejohn an opponent of sorts to maneuver against.
Bellairs adjusts the style and pacing of the novel once that opponent emerges, shifting from a slow, conversational approach to investigation to something more active and direct. The book never feels action-driven but I think it finds a new focus in those chapters. It helps that this shift coincides with the discovery of information that gives Littlejohn’s investigation a much sharper and slightly different area of focus though we do not lose sight of the car accident.
I do appreciate that this second phase of the story introduces some stronger mystery elements, creating a puzzle for the reader to solve although the writer’s focus remains on developing his characters and the relationship between Littlejohn and his opponent. The situation Bellairs describes is interesting and I did appreciate that it becomes more complex the more we know about it, building to the very welcome discovery of a second mystery for Littlejohn to work out.
I found that second mystery to be much more intriguing than the first and was surprised by several of the developments and by the overall premise which I thought was clever. Unfortunately I think it also feels a little rushed, in part because it is introduced quite late in the book leaving little time for a focused investigation. When Littlejohn does start to work it through I found I had to reread the conversation to clarify aspects of the complex explanation and wished that a little more room had been allocated to exploring this portion of the story.
Pacing is really the principle issue with Death in High Provence. The opening chapters are certainly atmospheric and establish a sense of obstacle but Bellairs takes too long to begin moving his narrative forward, leaving little room for the meat of the mystery. The circumstances of the second investigation are much more interesting than the first and could easily have supported a whole novel in themselves and yet they feel buried away in the final third of the novel, hinted at but not directly addressed until shortly before the end.
For that reason I cannot say that Death in High Provence is a particularly successful novel. It certainly stands out as being quite different in structure and style than any of the other Bellairs novels I have read so far but I couldn’t help but think that this would have worked better as a novel with a French policeman such as Bellairs’ Dorange taking the lead rather than an English detective like Littlejohn. Making that change might have allowed Bellairs to skip over some of the necessary establishing material to explain how and why Littlejohn gets involved and get directly to the mystery which, given more space, had potential to be quite interesting.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Any country but US or UK (Where)