It’s that time of year. The days are getting colder, the nights longer, and you’re already bracing for the awkward holiday kiss from good ol’ Aunt Evelyn. Be grateful, then, for Peter Mayle, who arrives just in time to whisk you away on another wine-splashed, sun-kissed Provencal escapade in his delightful new Sam Levitt novel, “The Marseille Caper.”
When we left Sam at the end of “The Vintage Caper,” the enterprising bon vivant had just stolen back a stash of vintage Bordeaux that had been swiped from the home of a Hollywood lawyer. Now, the man he stole it back from, a filthy rich Marseillais called Francis “Sissou” Reboul, needs his help.
Reboul submitted a proposal under the name of a Swiss bank and an American architectural firm to build on one of the last remaining seafront lots of Marseille, a gem called the Anse des Pecheurs. He’s up against firms from Paris and England, but he likes his chances. “In Marseille, we have loathed Parisians for centuries,” Reboul tells Sam. “The English we tolerate.”
What’s the snag? “There was a woman,” Reboul wryly confesses. “And such a woman, too.” She belonged, of course, to the chairman of the selection committee. So Sam’s job is to pose as an architect from Reboul’s American firm and win the contract. But the head of the English group, an “ex-bookmaker who bribed his way into the House of Lords,” isn’t going down without a fight. And he fights dirty.
“The Marseille Caper,” like many other Mayle novels, is faithful to the “French habit of planning the day’s sight-seeing around the stomach,” and the author frequently puts the plot on hold to celebrate French wine and cuisine. For example, when Reboul starts to tell Sam about the job at the beginning of the novel, he says, “But before I explain, let us deal with this excellent rabbit.” The rabbit is dealt with for a paragraph, and then the plot resumes.
Diversions like that might sound irritating, but Mayle writes them so joyfully that you’ll look forward to them as you would to your next meal on a trip to the south of France.
Like the James Bond franchise, Mayle novels have their girls, and “The Marseille Caper” is no exception. At Marseille’s Vieux Port, Sam sees “a young blonde dressed for the trip in a yachting cap and what appeared to be a couple of handkerchiefs held together by optimism.” On the way to dinner, Sam’s quick-witted girlfriend tells him off-handedly that beneath her dress she’s wearing nothing but a “couple of drops of Chanel.”
“There are certain men,” Mayle writes, “blessed from birth, whose character and appearance inspire instant liking.”
I wouldn’t know whether or not Mayle is one of those men. But “The Marseille Caper” is so blessed.
Wilwol is a writer living in Washington.
The Marseille Caper
By Peter Mayle
Knopf. 210 pp. $24