Monday, February 18, 2019

Books: "Death In Provence" By Serena Kent

Death In Provence
By Serena Kent
Harper; hardcover, 368 pages; $26.99; available Tuesday, February 19

Penelope Kite is a young-at-heart divorcee with a knack for stumbling across dead bodies. We are introduced to her in this first installment of a series of clever, lighthearted mystery series from Serena Kent set in modern Provence.

It's love at first sight when Penelope sees Le Chant d'Eau, or The Song of Water, the stone farmhouse tucked high into the hills above the Luberon valley, complete with a garden, swimming pool, and sweeping mountain vistas.

Penelope has put her unfaithful ex-husband and her ungrateful stepchildren first for years, and since she has taken early retirement from her job in forensics at the Home Office in England, she has been an unpaid babysitter and chauffeur to her grandkids.

Now, she is ready to start living for herself. Even though her dream house needs major renovations, Penelope impulsively buys the property and moves to St. Merlot.

"The house, title, and land were duly purchased and transferred, all the knotty legal issues scrutinized by a notary in Avignon," writes Kent. "Penelope flew down to the South of France for two days, and spent most of them in the notary's office listening to him read a homeowner's version of War and Peace out loud, reciting the history of every aspect of Le Chant d'Eau, including its current status regarding energy consumption, lead paint, and insect infestation. Her house in Esher, which suddenly seemed a model of hassle-free home ownership, was rented out, and most of her possessions sent into storage.
"'I am not doing this to spite you!' she said, yet again, to the children. "I am doing it for me, because I have a life too.'
"They stopped speaking to her, and then came round for more arguments. Justin gave her a lecture on family responsibilities and the name of a private doctor who specialized in HRT and midlife crisis counselling. Lena fumed. Zack and Xerxes waited and howled and kicked Penelope on the shins when she told them off.
"Penelope loved her family very much, but she thought it would do them good to be without her for a while.
"By the time she was all set to leave, it was August. The perfect time to move into an old house in Provence. No need to worry about heating it yet, and the days were still long. Penelope took three days driving down through France in a nearly new dark-blue Range Rover she had bought to feel secure on the roads. Nor did she want to worry about navigating the rutted track to the house or getting stuck up a hill in winter weather. It also had plenty of room for the essentials she brought with her. She gave herself treats along the way in the form of spa hotels, and stayed her first night in Provence in a boutique B&B in Avignon. She didn't know when she was next going to be able to sleep in luxury.
"First thing the next morning she drove to Menerbes, where she shook hands with Mme Valencourt at the Agence Hublot and collected the key to the front door of her property. The rest of the keys were in a wooden casket in a kitchen drawer, apparently.
"Excitement overcame Penelope's residual fatigue after the long drive on her own. She had made it! she steered the Range Rover due east along the D900, the main valley road, with the imposing rippled backdrop of the Luberon Mountains on her right. Apple and plum orchards, now fruiting, lined the route. Ancient stone mills and farms dotted fields of cut lavender and vineyards. The lower hills were topped with white stone houses and castles and churches like drip icing on cakes. Olive trees waved their silvery welcome in a lazy breeze.
"St Merlot was a sleepy village at the unfashionable end of the Luberon Valley, but that was its charm. Hidden in the creases of the ridge, the road ascended through Saignon on its rocky outcrop, and then continued to wind into the high folds of the hills.
"Penelope noted the turning for the track to Le Chant d'Eau, marked by a small run-down house, and carried on up into the village. St Merlot was an authentic, unspoilt place, seemingly missing from the tourist itineraries, a sprinkle of sun-gilded stone on a mild hillock surrounded by dry-stone walls and wildflowers. It boasted no ruined castle or ground church.
"The road passed through a small wood and then a cherry orchard. The oldest part of the village, with its winding streets and hidden alleys, lay to the left. She drew up on the right, close to a large place surrounded by plane trees. Behind the trees on two sides of the open space stood pale ochre-plastered houses with brightly painted shutters. One side bordered the road, and the fourth was open to the breathtaking view down the valley."

While Provence was everything she dreamed of, she didn't think her adventurous life there would include finding a corpse floating face down in her swimming pool. The discovery of the dead man plunges her into a stew of intrigue and resentments that simmer beneath the deceptively sunny village.

Penelope does have some knowledge of murder investigations since she worked in the forensics office. To find the answers she needs, she has to carefully navigate between her seemingly uniquitous, supercilious estate agent, the disdainful chief of police, and the very handsome mayor, while also being tempted by the delicacies that the region has to offer.

Her old friend Frankie is just a flight away, and Penelope knows she is not as naive as her neighbors in St. Merlot think she is.

Death In Provence is a delightful blend of Agatha Christie and Peter Mayle, and with the exquisite backdrop of that city and its history, atmosphere, and secrets, we are introduced to a heroine you will find irresistible and want to keep following her adventures.

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