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Francis Reboul sat in the sunshine, contemplating his breakfast: a shot glass of extra-virgin olive oil, which the French insist is so beneficial for le transit intestinal, followed by a large bowl of café crème and a croissant of such exquisite lightness that it threatened to float off the plate. He was sitting on his terrace, the shimmering sweep of the early morning Mediterranean stretching away to the horizon.
Life was good. Sam Levitt and Elena Morales, Reboul’s close friends and partners in past adventures, were arriving from California later in the day for an extended vacation. They had planned to sail around Corsica and perhaps down to Saint-Tropez then to spend some time at Reboul’s horse farm in the Camargue and to revisit some of Marseille’s excellent restaurants. It had been a year since they had seen one another—a busy year for them all—and there was a lot to catch up on.
Reboul put down his newspaper, squinting against the glare that bounced off the water. A couple of small sailboats were tacking their way toward the islands of Frioul. While he was watching them, Reboul’s attention was caught by something that was beginning to appear from behind the headland. It gradually became more visible, and bigger. Much bigger. It was, as he would later tell Sam, the mother of all yachts—three hundred feet if it was an inch, sleek and dark blue, with four decks, radar, the obligatory helicopter squatting on its pad in the stern, and not one but two Riva speedboats in tow.
It was now in front of Reboul, no more than three or four hundred yards offshore. It slowed, and drifted to a stop. A row of tiny figures appeared on the top deck, all gazing, it seemed to Reboul, directly at him. Over the years, he had become quite used to this kind of scrutiny from the sea. His house, Le Palais du Pharo, originally built for Napoleon III, was the biggest private residence in Marseille, and the most glamorous. Everything from one-man sailboats to the crowded local ferries had stopped, at one time or another, for a long, if distant, inspection of Chez Reboul. Telescopes, binoculars, cameras—he was used to them by now. He shrugged, and hid behind his newspaper.
On board the yacht, Oleg Vronsky—Oli to his friends and numerous hangers-on, and “The Barracuda” to the international business press—turned to Natasha, the statuesque young woman whom he had appointed his personal first mate for the voyage. “This is more like it,” he said. “Yes. This is more like it.” He smiled, making the deep, livid scar on his cheek pucker. Apart from that, he would have been a good-looking man. Although a little on the short side, he was slim, his thick gray hair was cut en brosse, and his eyes were that shade of icy blue often found in people from the frozen north.
He had spent the past week cruising along the Riviera coast, stopping off to look at properties on Cap Ferrat, Cap d’Antibes, Cannes, and Saint-Tropez. And he had been disappointed. He was prepared to spend serious money, fifty million euros or more, but he had seen nothing that made him want to reach for his wallet. There were some fine houses, certainly, but too close to one another. The Riviera had become crowded, that was the problem, and Vronsky was looking for plenty of space and maximum privacy—and no Russian neighbors. There were so many of them on Cap Ferrat nowadays that the more enterprising locals were taking Russian lessons and learning to like vodka.
Vronsky took a cell phone from his pocket and pressed the single button that connected him to Katya, his personal assistant. She had been with him before the billions, when he was no more than a lowly millionaire, and she was one of the very few people who had his absolute trust.
“Tell Johnny to come and see me on the top deck, would you? And tell him to get ready for a quick trip. Oh, have we heard back from London yet?” Vronsky was negotiating to buy an English football team from an Arab consortium, not the easiest group of people to deal with, and he was becoming impatient. Somewhat encouraged by Katya’s reply, he turned back to resume his inspection of Reboul’s property, pushing his sunglasses up onto his head and adjusting the focus of his binoculars. No doubt about it, the setting was superb, and it seemed, from what he could see, that there were ample grounds around the house, undoubtedly enough for a discreet helicopter pad. Vronsky felt the first stirrings of what would quickly develop into a full-scale lust to acquire.
“Where to, boss?” Johnny from Jamaica gave Vronsky the benefit of his wide white smile, a gleaming gash across his ebony face. During his time as a mercenary in Libya, he had learned to fly helicopters, a useful addition to his other skills with weapons and the finer points of unarmed combat. A good man to have on your side.
“A short hop, Johnny. A little reconnaissance. You’ll need a camera and someone who can use it.” Vronsky took the Jamaican’s arm and led him to a less crowded part of the deck.
Reboul dipped the final bite of his croissant into his coffee and looked up from his paper. The yacht was still there. He could see two figures in the stern busying themselves around the helicopter’s landing gear before climbing in, and then the rotor blades began to turn. He wondered idly where they were off to, and returned to the news of the day as reported in La Provence. Why was it that, even with the season long since over, journalists devoted so much space to football players and their antics? He sighed, put aside the paper, and picked up the Financial Times.
The noise was sudden and shocking. Flying low, the helicopter was heading directly toward him. It slowed, then hovered above the terrace before making a couple of circuits around the house and its gardens. As it tilted to make a turn, Reboul could see the long lens of a camera poking out of the side window. This was unacceptable. Reboul took out his phone and tapped in the number of the chief of police in Marseille, a friend.
“Hervé, it’s Francis. Sorry to bother you, but I’m being buzzed by some lunatic in a helicopter. He’s flying low and he’s taking photographs. Any chance of sending a Mirage jet over to discourage him?”
Hervé laughed. “How about an official helicopter? I can send one of the boys out now.”
But the intruding helicopter, with one final swoop over the terrace, was now on its way back to the yacht. “Don’t bother,” said Reboul. “He’s gone.”
“Did you see any of his registration markings?”
“No—I was too busy ducking. But he’s going back to a yacht that’s opposite the Pointe du Pharo, maybe heading for the Vieux Port. It’s a huge, dark-blue thing the size of a paquebot.”
“That won’t be too hard to find. I’ll look into it and get back to you.”
“Thanks, Hervé. Lunch next time is on me.”
Vronsky leaned over Katya as she connected the camera to her computer and brought up the first of the photographs. Like many rich and powerful men, his grasp of the details of modern technology was sketchy. “There,” said Katya, “just press this key to change the images.”
Vronsky peered at the screen in silence, his shoulders hunched in concentration. As one image followed another—the perfectly proportioned architecture, the immaculate gardens, the absence of close neighbors—he started nodding. Finally he sat back and smiled at Katya.
“Find out who owns that house. I want it.”
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of The Corsican Caper, Peter Mayle’s latest tale about lovable rogue and sleuth extraordinaire Sam Levitt.
1. “Francis Reboul sat in the sunshine, contemplating his breakfast: a shot glass of extra-virgin olive oil, which the French insist is so beneficial for le transit intestinal, followed by a large bowl of café crème and a croissant of such exquisite lightness that it threatened to float off the plate.” How does Mayle use the novel’s opening sentence to set up Francis’s character?
2. Compare that introduction to our first glimpse of Reboul’s nemesis: “On board the yacht, Oleg Vronsky—Oli to his friends and numerous hangers-on, and ‘The Barracuda’ to the international business press—turned to Natasha, the statuesque young woman whom he had appointed his personal first mate for the voyage.” (pages 4–5) How do these two early passages indicate what kind of story this will be?
3. Mayle is known for his exquisite descriptions of food and place. How does he use this skill to establish characters and propel the plot?
4. One of the themes in this novel is old vs. new, pitting old money and deep-rooted locals against oligarchs and faux aristocrats. Where does Sam Levitt fit into that rivalry?
5. Levitt is a bit of a sybarite, and he spends considerable time aboard luxury yachts—yet he doesn’t like boats. What does this tell us about him?
6. When Reboul rebuffs Vronsky’s attempt to talk to him at the gala, each man walks away believing the other has behaved badly. Can you see why both might consider things that way? How might Vronksy have had more success with Reboul?
7. Why do you think Vronsky is so obsessed with this particular house? Why is he willing to kill (or have someone else kill) for it?
8. How do Sam and Elena’s forays into house-hunting keep the story moving? What do we learn about character and plot from these detours?
9. Elena seems like quite a smart, capable woman, but she’s easily distracted by food, wine, and clothing—for example, when Sam derails her political rant about anti-abortion, pro-gun activists with an invitation to lunch (page 91). What do you think she sees in Sam? What does he see in her? Do you think they have a serious future?
10. Why is Philippe willing to risk his professional reputation—and possibly his life—to help Reboul?
11. The divorce lawyer, Prat, “congratulated himself, as he frequently did, on having chosen an occupation that feeds off human weakness, fallibility, and greed, three qualities that had helped to reward him so generously over the years” (pages 99–100). What other characters in the novel might say the same?
12. At times, the Figatellis and the Oblomovs seem like two sides of the same coin. What differentiates them? What makes us root for one pair over the other?
13. “Like so many rich and successful men, [Vronsky] was often the target of a nagging feeling that whatever he had wasn’t quite enough. Something was lacking” (page 108). Why does he feel this way? Do you think Reboul shares this feeling?
14. Levitt’s scheme requires him to act as a stand-in for Reboul, and in so doing, to risk his life. Clearly, he enjoys this—he says as much to Elena on page 129: “Guys just like to have fun.” Why do you think he finds this element of danger so appealing? Do you think all men share that sense?
15. What did you think of the novel’s climax? Were you expecting something different?
16. How would you characterize this series: mystery, travelogue, escapist lit? How does Mayle take elements from each to create something uniquely his?