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Although new to me, this is the first in a lauded series now totaling three titles. Author-historian Corrado Pope proves to be a stellar writer of intelligent mysteries.

In late 19th Century France, new ideas about religion, women, work, thought and art are stirring up the populace. No exception is the provincial town of Aix-en-Provence, set in the southwestern Midi, a hot, stunning, violent landscape. Out of this, Ms. Pope weaves a fluid, atmospheric historical mystery.

Attractive, self-made but locally disparaged Parisian business woman Solange Vernet, a recent resident of Aix, is found in a quarry one burning August morning, raped and murdered. For conservative Aix, her death seems to suit her.

Mlle. Vernet believed in modern social ideas. She lived with an English lover, the ironically emotional Charles Westbury, an author, lecturer, and ardent advocate for the reviled theory of evolution. She also knew the town’s famous, not particularly respected native son, struggling, brusque anti-establishment painter Paul Cezanne; it’s common knowledge that he climbs to the craggy quarry almost daily, creating and often ripping up his radical new images.

To coarse-minded police veteran Sgt. Albert Franc, the crime is patently the result a classic love triangle, accusing first the lover, then Cezanne. But in France,  investigations are supervised by the judiciary. The only magistrate available in this late August vacation season is the least seasoned jurist in town. Conscientious and cautious, an incomer needing to prove himself before the more senior judges return shortly, young Bernard Martin dances carefully around the established Franc’s attempts to control the investigation and put it to rest. But Martin, a necessarily secret reader of new thinkers, suspects that unlike the brutal landscape and the two suspects’ erratic behavior, something subtler is in play.

Investigating like a man walking on broken glass, Martin takes us through varieties of personal lives and relationships, from cafe waitresses to policemen, tenants to landlords, housemaids to revolutionaries, church to state and family, sons to imperious elders. We feel the turmoil of this era in France.

It is a treat to see the characters evolve and expose themselves, even as Ms. Pope deftly gives us social history. Cezanne’s dysfunctional relationships with his mistress and his wealthy Aix family, the mystery of the red-headed woman of his paintings make fascinating reading, and so does the way the nature of the surrounding landscape imbues the town’s mindsets .

You don’t have to look out for the easily managed themes of personal dichotomies, between science and emotion, adaption and evolution, thought and action, but they are there and enrich this enjoyable book.

Click here for Barbara Pope’s Website

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