"This is a mystery with Gaillac flavor to be savored" Mystery Scene Magazine
"A finely crafted and surprising mystery" Kirkus Reviews
The body of Gil Petty, America's most celebrated wine critic, is found strung up in a French Gaillac vineyard, dressed in the ceremonial robes of the Order of the Divine Bottle and pickled in wine.
For forensic expert Enzo Macleod, the key to this unsolved murder lies in decoding Petty's mysterious reviews, which could make or break a vineyard's reputation.
As he digs deeper for the motivation behind the shocking crime, Macleod finds that beneath the tranquil façade of French viticulture lurks a back-stabbing community characterized by a deadly rivalryand home to someone who is ready to stop him even if they have to kill again to stop the investigation.
About the Author
Peter May was born and raised in Scotland. He was an award-winning journalist at the age of twenty-one and a published novelist at twenty-six. When his first book was adapted as a major drama series for the BBC, he quit journalism and during the high-octane fifteen years that followed, became one of Scotland's most successful television dramatists. He created three prime-time drama series, presided over two of the highest-rated serials in his homeland as script editor and producer, and worked on more than 1,000 episodes of ratings-topping drama before deciding to leave television to return to his first love, writing novels.
He has won several literature awards in France; received several English-language awards, including the Barry Award for The Blackhouse, the first volume in his internationally bestselling Lewis Trilogy; and in 2014 he won the ITV Specsavers Crime Thriller Book Club Best Read of the Year award for Entry Island. Peter now lives in southwest France with his wife, writer Janice Hally.
Read an Excerpt
By Peter May
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2007 Peter May
All right reserved.
'Petty must have been one of the most unpopular men in France, Monsieur Macleod.' The Préfet waved his hand airily, as if all of France lay before him. 'Imagine. An American who told Frenchmen if their wine was any good.'
Enzo couldn't resist a tiny smile. 'I'm sure those châteaux in Bordeaux, whose wines sell for a hundred dollars a bottle or more, were very happy with the ratings Monsieur Petty gave them.'
'Yes, but that didn't mean they liked him. Feared him, more like. After all, one bad rating could spell ruin. And there's been more than one winemaker destroyed by Petty's disapproval.'
Distaste curled the Préfet's lip.
The Cathedral of Sainte Cecile, the largest brick building in the world, loomed above them, its basilica dominating the skyline of the city of Albi, a feat of mediaeval engineering yet to be surpassed by twenty-first century architects. The Préfet strolled across the cobbled cathedral square as if he owned it, which he very nearly did. On the far side, there were already queues at the gate of the Toulouse Lautrec museum.
'Of course, one critic passes, another fills his shoes. Robert Parker is king now. And the journalists of The Wine Spectator. More Americans.' The Préfet's distaste was wrinkling his nose now. 'But none of them has ever come to Gaillac to taste our local wines. Parker was rumoured to have once rated a Château Lastours. I don't know if that is true or not, but Petty was the only one to come to do a comprehensive tasting.' He sighed and turned a look of curiosity towards Enzo as if it was only just occurring to him to wonder why he was even discussing the matter with this strange, pony-tailed Scotsman. 'But then we'll never know what he thought, since his tasting notes were never found. Although I'm sure you know all this already.'
Enzo nodded. He knew every detail of Petty's disappearance and murder. Not only from what he had read in Raffin's book, but from the briefing Raffin himself had given him. Originally, there were only to have been six unsolved murders in the book. The Petty case had been a last-minute inclusion. A Stop Press.
'So I'm not exactly sure how it is I can help you. My opposite number in the Lot spoke very highly of you. We were at ENA together, you know.'
'Yes, I know, Monsieur le Préfet. I was hoping you might be able to put me in touch with someone at Gaillac. Someone who could help me go undercover. Grape-picking, perhaps.'
'So you think you're going to solve Petty's murder as well as Gaillard's, do you? Another bet?'
It had been widely reported that Enzo had cracked the Gaillard case as the result of a three-way bet with his local Préfet and the police chief in his home town of Cahors. Albi was two hours south of Cahors, high up above the River Tarn-fast-flowing water coruscating in the slanting September sunlight.
Enzo glanced along the tree-lined river bank, brick-built houses with shallow, red, Roman-tiled roofs rising above turning leaves. 'Not this time, Monsieur le Préfet. I'm trying to raise funds for the new forensics department at my university in Toulouse. We attracted a lot of publicity with the Gaillard case, so I'm working my way through the other unsolved cases in Raffin's book.'
They stopped at the foot of steps leading to the elaborate gothic stone entrance that abutted the towering brick edifice of the cathedral. The Préfet was on his way to morning prayers, a religious man filled with piety outside the secular confines of his political office. He turned a speculative eye on Enzo. 'I'm not sure I approve of amateur sleuths working outside of the law.'
'I'm hardly an amateur, Monsieur le Préfet. I'm well qualified in the art of forensic science.' And before the Préfet could point out that it was an art he had not practised for twenty years, he added, 'And besides, there wouldn't be any need for amateur sleuths if the police were doing their job.'
The Préfet raised an eyebrow. 'Préfet Verne said you were a plain-speaking man.' There was an almost imperceptible hesitation before he reached a decision. He took out a small, leather-bound notebook and scribbled a name and number on a blank page. He tore it out and handed it to Enzo. 'I wish you the best of luck, Monsieur Macleod. You'll need it.' And he turned and ran up the steps, late for his appointment with God.
'I made the initial identification at the morgue three years ago.' Laurent de Bonneval was a man in his early fifties. He was, perhaps, a year or two older than Enzo. He was tall, and willowy thin, with thick, black, curly hair, shot through with an odd streak of silver. His friendly, liquid brown eyes, were melancholy now with the memory of the moment. 'It was shocking. I've never seen a human being in a state like that. It was almost as if he had been pickled by the wine, like something preserved in a jar. I suppose the alcohol retarded the process of decay. He must have been completely submerged in it for most of the twelve months he was missing.'
Bonneval turned away from the window. The blood had drained from his face, leaving his tanned skin a sickly yellow. Beyond him, fifty feet below the battlement walls of the old abbey, the River Tarn continued on its stately route west from Albi, now thirty miles upstream.
They were in the offices of the Commission Interprofessionnelle des Vins de Gaillac in the Maison des Vins, part of the thirteenth century brick-built Abbé Saint-Michel in the millennium town of Gaillac. Enzo felt a thousand years of history encased in the redbrick walls around them. 'Why wasn't he identified by a relative?'
'Because no one bothered to come over from the States when they found him. He'd been divorced for several years and estranged from his daughter, apparently.'
Enzo cleared his throat self-consciously. These were uncomfortable parallels with his own life. But, then Monsieur de Bonneval wasn't to know that. 'So why did they ask you?'
'He'd been tasting my wines at Château Saint-Michel the week before he went missing. So I'd met him. But also, I suppose, because I was president of the CIVG. I represented all the winemakers of Gaillac. Still do.'
Enzo looked at his blue-ribbed pullover with its faded elbow patches, and his baggy cord trousers, and thought he looked like an unlikely representative of winemakers. But there was something attractive about him, an avuncular quality that made him instantly likeable. 'Police reports said he'd been dressed up in the ceremonial garb of some local brotherhood of winemakers.'
'Yes, the order of the divine bottle-l'Ordre de la Dive Bouteille. Quite bizarre, really. The order is a brotherhood of bon viveurs in the mould of François Rabelais.'
Enzo knew of the famous sixteenth century French writer's predilection for wine, and also of his infamous one-line will: I have nothing, I owe a great deal, and the rest I leave to the poor.
Bonneval said, 'The brotherhood is rooted in an ancient society that existed five hundred years ago called La Companha de la Poda. A poda was short hand-axe they used to use for pruning the vines. But nowadays it seems the confrérie has only two purposes. The promotion of wine, and the drinking of it.'
'You're not a member, then?'
'Good God, no. I'm a serious winemaker, Monsieur. I don't have time for dressing up in crimson gowns and pointed hats.' Bonneval smiled. 'I don't mind drinking the stuff, though.' Enzo nodded. He wasn't averse to a glass or two himself. 'So what was Petty's connection to the organisation?'
'He'd been inducted into the confrérie shortly after his arrival here. Made a chevalier of the order.'
'Was that unusual?'
'Not for someone of his standing. He was, after all, just about the biggest name in the world of wine, Monsieur Macleod. And he'd come to taste our wines. Maybe even put us on the map. Good ratings from Petty could have made some of our vignerons a lot of money.'
'And bad ratings could have ruined them.'
Bonneval shrugged. 'If you're looking for a motive, then I suppose that's true.'
'So,' Enzo said. 'Do you think you can help me?'
'Oh, I think so, yes.' He took a business card from his wallet and handed it to Enzo. 'Look, why don't you come to the château this evening, have dinner with my wife and me. Are you familiar with wine-making, Monsieur Macleod?'
'I understand the process. But I'm not familiar with all the mechanics.'
'You do enjoy a glass, though?'
'Good. We'll have a bottle or two, and then I'll show you around. And in the meantime, I'll see if I can't get you placed for a little grape-picking.' He smiled. 'I hope you don't have back problems.'
Gaillac, Enzo reflected, as he crossed the freshly re-cobbled Place du Griffoul, was not a beautiful town. It had neither the scale nor dignity of the departmental capital of Albi, but it had a certain dusty charm. It was a working town, filled with working people. Red bricks and grapes. The smell of them filled the air, a rich, heady, fruity scent carried in waves on the breeze. It was harvest time, and the lifeblood of the town and the vineyards that climbed both banks of the river around it was being gathered and squeezed and fermented in towering stainless steel tanks at more than one hundred and twenty domaines and châteaux.
Diners were gathering in restaurants and cafés around the old bastide, and Enzo climbed the narrow Rue Charles Portal, with its ancient cantilevered buildings leaning at odd angles, oak beams and brick, glass and neon. A strange amalgam of old and new. The sun was high and hot in an early autumn sky, burnt-out and shimmering in the haze of its own heat, and people hurried home to lunch clutching warm, freshly-baked loaves. It was hard to believe that in this somnolent town in southwest France, a killer still walked free-long after his victim had been buried and all but forgotten.
* * *
The entrance to the gendarmerie was in Avenue Jean Calvet, an electronic gate opening into a hot, asphalt courtyard, bounded on its east side by an apartment block that housed gendarmes and their families. Enzo pressed the buzzer and told the girl who responded over the loudspeaker that he wanted to talk to Gendarme David Roussel.
Roussel's office was off a corridor beyond a faded, green shuttered door on the far side of the courtyard. Gendarmes stood around in groups, smoking and chatting, and watching Enzo with idle curiosity as he crossed it. He was clearly not local. A tall man, over six feet, with an odd silver streak running back through greying, dark hair.
Roussel himself was a short man in his mid-thirties with a fine stubble of dark hair growing like velvet across a bullet skull. He had big, dark, suspicious eyes and hands that would make fists the size of Belfast hams. His dark blue pants were tucked into black leather boots, a pale blue, short-sleeved polo shirt tucked into the pants above a white belt and holstered gun. Just beneath the buttons at his neck, a dark blue square bore two silver stripes, and on his left arm, a lion rampant rose proudly on a grey shield. Both were attached to the shirt by velcro, removable for washing, and Enzo reflected on how practical the French could be.
Roussel ushered him into the gloom of his office, a small cluttered space with three desks, both windows shuttered against the glare of the outside world. A life-size cardboard cut-out of Lara Croft leaned against the back wall, thrusting outsized breasts into the room. A U2 poster was a visual counterpart to the music that played through the speakers of Roussel's computer. Roussel positioned himself behind his desk, hands on hips. 'Best rock group in the world.' He allowed time for Enzo to absorb this wisdom, then added, 'You know, there are people out there campaigning to stop prisoners being kept three to a cell. Cells bigger than this.' He waved a hand around his office. 'There are three of us in here-and we're gendarmes!' He barely allowed himself time to draw breath. 'What do you want, Monsieur Macleod?'
'You received a fax from Madame Taillard, the police chief in Cahors?'
'Then you'll know I'm here about the murder of Gil Petty.'
Roussel allowed himself to drop into his seat, and he folded his arms across his chest. Enzo noticed a foot-high plastic model of Lara Croft standing to one side of the computer, the cardboard box it had come in discarded amongst the detritus piled up on the floor behind the desk. 'I don't like the Police Nationale, monsieur. They're civilians, we're army. They get funded, we don't.' He picked a pen out of a jar of them standing on his desk and scribbled with it on his inkpad. It left nothing but an indentation in the paper. 'Gendarme-issue. Doesn't work.' He picked up a file on his desk and pulled off the paper clip that bound it, holding it up for Enzo to see. 'Paper clips? Got to buy them ourselves. You think the Police Nationale buy their own paper clips?'
'I have no idea.'
'No, of course you don't. And I have no idea how I can help you.'
'I'd like access to your files on the Petty case.'
Roussel gazed at him very directly for a long time. Then his face broke into an unexpected smile of genuine amusement. 'I like a man with a sense of humour, Monsieur Macleod. What makes you think I would give you access to the files?' But before Enzo could reply, he lifted a hand to stop him. 'No, tell me this first. Who are you?'
Enzo was taken aback. 'Well, you know who I am.'
Enzo sighed. 'My name's Enzo-'
Rousell cut him of. 'No, I know who you are. Or, rather, I know who you tell me you are.' He reached across the desk. 'And what I read in a fax from someone purporting to be the chief of police in Cahors. You could be the killer for all I know. And you want me to hand over my files?'
Enzo was at a loss.
'And in any case, the Gendarmerie Nationale doesn't give out information to private investigators.'
'I'm not exactly a private investigator.'
'No, you're not.' Roussel opened a slim file on his desk and lifted a sheet of paper to examine it. 'You're a former forensics officer from Scotland. You've lived in France for twenty years and you teach biology at Paul Sabatier University in Toulouse.'
'I thought you didn't know anything about me.'
'I did some checking. In my business it pays.'
Roussel had done his homework, but it was time, Enzo thought, to turn defence into attack. 'It's easy enough, monsieur, to find facts that are readily available on the internet. It's quite another to solve a crime when none of the facts are apparent, and it requires some intelligence to unearth them.'
Colour rose high on Roussel's cheeks, marring a smooth, tanned complexion. 'Your point being?'
'Petty was missing for a year before his body turned up. Not only did you fail to find him, you didn't even know he'd been murdered until his killer decided to put him on public display.'
Roussel's anger was apparent only in the almost imperceptible clenching and unclenching of his jaw. He gazed at Enzo with steady dark eyes. 'People go missing all the time, Monsieur Macleod.' He tapped another file on his desk. A fat one this time. 'I have nearly half a dozen cases in my missing persons file. Very often people have their own reasons. Nothing sinister. A marital break-up, a secret affair, redundancy, mental illness. Sometimes they just want to disappear.' He opened the file and lifted out a sheaf of papers held together with a clip he had no doubt bought himself. 'This one I was at school with. Serge Coste. Just upped sticks and left a year ago. His wife says she has no idea why. But I figure they had a big bust up. They were childless. She wanted to adopt, he didn't. That sort of thing can put people under all sorts of pressure. But we'll probably never know why he left, or where he went.' He closed the file and slapped his hand on top of it. 'We had no reason to suspect foul play when Petty disappeared. Even when we came under pressure-he was an international personality, after all-we could find no evidence that there had been any crime committed.'
'Even when he turned up strapped to a cross like a scarecrow in a vineyard?'
'That was twelve months later. The trail was cold as ice.'
'Not where he was found. He'd only been there a matter of hours. You had a fresh crime scene. And a killer always leaves something behind. Some clue. No matter how small. Always.'
Excerpted from The Critic by Peter May Copyright © 2007 by Peter May. Excerpted by permission.
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