A Novel of Death in the Dordogne

By Michelle Wan

Doubleday. 301 pp. $23.95

Cross-pollinate Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief with Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence and you've got the genetic code of Michelle Wan's debut suspense novel, Deadly Slipper. That's not to say that Deadly Slipper is simply a calculated knockoff but, rather, that its story line (revolving around the pursuit of a rare orchid) and atmosphere (stocked with colorful French characters and off-the-beaten-track bistros) inevitably bring to mind those best-selling forebears. What makes Deadly Slipper much more than just the literary equivalent of a sidewalk Marc Jacobs bag, however, is its humdinger of a central plot conceit: In this mystery, the only witness to a decades-old crime is a flower.

Deadly Slipper is set in the Dordogne, a region of southwestern France known for its dramatic flora and fauna, particularly its wild orchids. The profusion of plant life attracted a loner Englishman named Julian Wood to the area years ago and inspired the writing of his acclaimed text, "Wildflowers of the Dordogne/Fleurs sauvage de la Dordogne." Ever since the publication of that horticultural "bilingual bible," Julian has made his living doing landscape gardening for the wealthy expatriates moving into the locale. One wet spring day, an attractive and energetic Canadian woman named Mara Dunn turns up at his stone cottage seeking advice, not on how to eliminate crabgrass but on how to retrace the steps of her twin sister, Bedie, who disappeared on a backpacking trip in the Dordogne in 1984.

After years of restless wandering, Mara has recently moved to the area and set herself up as an interior designer in order to be close to her sister's last known whereabouts. What's given Mara hope that the cold case might finally be solved is the fact that on a scavenging trip to a local secondhand shop she discovered Bedie's camera -- and inside was an undeveloped roll of film. When processed, the 34 photos constituted a record of Bedie's blossomy trek around the Dordogne, mostly shots of flowers and one pigeonnier or stone pigeon coop. (The economy of the Dordogne, we're told, once depended heavily on the production of pigeon droppings for fertilizer.) One badly speckled photo rivets Julian's attention. Apparently, the last shot Bedie ever took was a close-up of a Lady's Slipper, a rare orchid that has never been known to grow in the Dordogne.

Mara needs Julian's wild orchid expertise in order to find the location of Bedie's final look through the viewfinder; Julian, in turn, craves the botanical bonanza of discovering the whereabouts of this heretofore undocumented species of orchid. The mismatched sleuths set off, using Bedie's old photos as a pictorial map. As Mara reflects halfway through their search, the odds are not in their favor:

"It was a bizarre kind of investigation they were conducting, Mara thought, taking in her leafy surroundings. One in which the sole witnesses to Bedie's disappearance were silent and ephemeral, their only evidence the existence of a pigeonnier and a certain pattern of plants. How, she wondered in bemusement, do you question a flower?" Ingeniously, though, Mara and Julian do, in fact, interrogate plants and flowers and begin to assemble an outline of Bedie's last known movements. (They also coax crucial confessions out of taciturn farmers, decadent aristocrats and a tell-tale pile of bones.) Sometimes the dialogue here is a little hackneyed: This is a novel in which characters actually utter B-movie pronouncements such as: "[I]t's a question you would have been much better not to ask" and "Go, now, before it is too late." Fortunately, the silent eloquence of the horticultural witnesses atones for the occasional cliches mouthed by the human ones.

Mysteries like Deadly Slipper that are so laden with local color sometimes coast on their charm to the detriment of their plots, but Wan's novel ratchets up the tension with every passing chapter. As the quest nears its simultaneously desired and dreaded end, Mara finds herself growing attracted to Julian. Yet, she wonders if there isn't something funny -- suspicious even -- about a man who seemingly prefers the company of flora to that of femmes. And to make matters murkier, a retired police detective reveals that other women, some traveling on their own like Bedie, have gone missing in the Dordogne. Is a stalker on the loose, and if so, will he be disturbed by Mara's appearance -- the spitting (if aged) image of her presumably dead twin? By the end of this moody and elegant suspense story, both armchair travel and artificial flowers will seem like infinitely preferable alternatives to the real things. *

Maureen Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air."