Imagine, sitting down at a local brasserie in Provence. The mistral cloud-clear skies are pristine blue, the warm air is dry and unexpectedly ideal, the rhythm of the city of Aix-en-Provence hums steadily, yet soothingly. Seasonal food satisfies and an expertly selected wine is suggested by the staff. Time does not exist. You are in France. Remaining present in the moment is more than possible; it is easier than enjoying sweet kisses from a love. Yep, THAT good.
I dislike doing what I am about to do immensely, but I have to wake you from your French daydream. So many of us are longing to return or visit for the first time a country, France, a culture, we hold is high regard, but we must wait, so while we wait, might I suggest a brilliantly crafted cozy mystery set in Aix-en-Provence?
M.L. Longworth (Mary Lou) is a dear friend of TSLL, a Canadian expat who has made Provence her home with her husband and now grown daughter for over 20 years. Many of you already know and love her work, and thankfully, her Provençal mystery series, with sleuths Antoine Verlaque and Marine Bonnet lead the way amidst a mystery involving the art world of Aix.
Of course, the case requires meals for sustenance, and this is something Longworth appetizes her readers with incredibly well. In fact, this time, I found my culinary predilections piqued with each of the many scenes her characters find themselves whether in a local bistro, café or brasserie. For example, Verlaque and Paulik find themselves in a family-owned Greek restaurant while investigating in Provence and the list of ingredients shared for the stuffed leg of lamb – breadcrumbs, parsley, garlic, onions, eggs (the usual suspects) paired with “anchovies, carrots, vermouth and a host of fresh herbs” – reminds the reader delectable meals require quality, season, creative ingredients – but that’s it. I will admit I dog-ear pages of Longworth’s mysteries solely to give the suggested recipes a try.
Savoring the ninth mystery in the Provençal mystery series The Vanishing Museum on the Rue Mistral (released on April 13th) each night as a way to slip away to France, I have learned to take my time as I can easily enjoy myself so much I lose track of time and before I know it, the mystery has been solved. Longworth has mastered the craft of engaging mystery writing, and thankfully, her answer to my question – is there a 10th mystery in the works? – will delight readers and even moreso regarding the ‘when it will be released’.
Today, Mary Lou kindly answers eleven questions I had for her about her new mystery, life in Provence, springtime in and around Aix, life in the countryside of France during the pandemic and much more. I do hope you enjoy ‘meeting’ M.L. Longworth, and to further your introduction, be sure to listen to episode #203 (M.L. shares her life in Provence), episode #268 (M.L. talks Provence during the holidays and her favorite cookbooks) and take a walking tour of Aix-en-Provence when Mary Lou introduced the Paris of the South of France to me during my trip to France in 2018. Now to the conversation.
Q:The first scene in the first chapter is set in a fictitious museum in Aix, Musée Quentin-Savary. The title of your new mystery is The Vanishing Museum on the Rue Mistral. I have to begin by asking what inspired you to choose a museum as the primary center of the caper?
A:I love museums, especially tiny, almost forgotten, ones. When we first moved to Aix in 1997 the natural history museum was of this type—handwritten labels from the 1800s and rooms jammed full of a wealthy man’s collection of seashells, dinosaur eggs, bugs, and stuffed birds. They changed it ‘for the better’ in the early 2000s by installing computers, and removing most of the collection, and we stopped going. It’s no longer open. In small Italian towns we still come across these kinds of museums; marine museums are a particular favorite! And, there is an actual small museum in the Mazarin neighborhood that my museum is loosely based on, it’s the Musée Arbaud.
Q:Speaking of museums in Aix, I remember when you gave me a walking tour of the city, we walked by one set just off the Cours de Mirabeau. Aix has many museums. Which ones do you enjoy most and would recommend?
A:I adore Cézanne’s studio, Les Lauves, just north of the downtown (an easy uphill twenty-minute walk). It’s just as he left it in 1906. His spirit is really there and you can recognize various objects from his paintings: ceramic pots, vases, Provençal hand-printed cotton tablecloths, fruit and his plaster cherub. His coat and hat hang on a peg.
Q:As you are a resident of the area, I read a Picasso museum was set to open this year, but then the plans were halted.What do you know about the future of this potential museum?
A:Alas, because of financial complications the Picasso museum deal has fallen through. I have a friend who’s a member of the city’s politics and he gave me the scoop. It had to do with inheritance rights, as the buyer made it clear they only wanted to own the building for five years, possibly ten. That made a museum impossible. It’s a great building, a former convent with a central garden, so hopefully it will be put to good use and something like a museum that everyone can enjoy. But it will probably be turned into a luxury hotel.
Q:France has gone in and out of lockdowns over the past year. What has your experience been living in the south of France?
A:We’ve had an easier time of the lockdowns than many as we live in the country. But, even in our village, it’s the closing of our cafés, bars, and restaurants, and their lively terraces, that have made it particularly sad. And we miss our friends. We have neighbors just across the vineyard who have become dear friends, so we see them. That’s about it! My husband jokes that he’s worried he’s afraid he has forgotten how to make polite conversation!
Q:Spring is in full bloom in Provence, what are you enjoying most seasonally during this time of year?
A:Easy! Asparagus and strawberries! We only eat local produce (except for limes and bananas!) so this time of the year is a big treat. We prefer thin green asparagus; the French, especially older people, like the fat white ones which I find bland. And there are so many varieties of strawberries. There’s a perfumed one (la Gariguette) that smells of roses. This is the time of year that wild flowers line our country lanes, bright red poppies mixed with purple Valerianne and yellow Genet. And the vines have tiny leaves right now, almost neon green in color. Thankfully we weren’t too badly hit here with the frost in April. Friends in Burgundy lost a third of their grapes.
Q:You have shared you have a keen affection for British writers and introduced me to Anita Brookner, recommending her Hotel du Lac. First, thank you. 🙂 I thoroughly enjoyed the plot, the writing and even read it twice simply to catch those details I missed as I tried to understand the plot the first-go round. What tickled me upon first sitting down to read The Vanishing Museum on the Rue Mistral is the allusion to Poirot (in describing the museum director in Chapter One: “He reminded her of a television character from a show her parents watched: a short, fastidious Belgian who walked with tiny footsteps, like a penguin.”) Spontaneously, I smiled with glee from ear to ear. What draws you to British writers and specifically British mysteries and how do they show up or are you influenced by them in your own writing?
A:I’m not sure why I almost exclusively read English and Irish writers. Perhaps it’s because I have access to them, and news about their books, as I live in Europe. Barbara Pym and Anita Brookner are my favorite writers: both writers loved keen observation, and have female characters that are bit marginal but very polite, very well educated. And the Pym books are drop-over funny!
I’m afraid I don’t read many mysteries, but I love, and re-watch (as my husband can attest to!) the Inspector Morse series. The acting is brilliant, and it’s so fun to watch the growing relationship between Morse and his sergeant, Lewis. It’s quite refined; the murders always take place in a country house or one of the Oxford college’s, and Morse listens to opera, sings in a choir, and drinks a tad too much.
Q:You have now been writing full-time after stepped down from teaching writing at New York University’s Paris campus. There is a description in Chapter One of Marine in which you write, “She didn’t miss teaching or the endless academic meetings, but she did rather miss the camaraderie of colleagues and having a place to go each morning instead of just shuffling up the stairs to her office in the mezzanine of their apartment.” What do you miss, but also what are you savoring now that you have been fully and solely immersed in your writing for 2-3 years now?
A:Haha that’s exactly what I miss, my colleagues and the camaraderie. I don’t miss commuting over 800 kilometers, even if it’s on a fast train! There’s plenty to do here, with my mysteries and the general upkeep of a house. Food shopping and cooking take up a lot of my spare time (as many of us can attest to!). My neighbor Jacques is retired so does the food shopping while his wife works from home as a translator. We compare notes and ideas, and we both agree that a proper shopping takes about three hours as we buy from various different producers (one for wine, a butcher or fishmonger, a cheese shop, then the fruit and vegetables. No one-stop shopping). But the food tastes so much better, and we are sure that our money is going directly to the producers, so we don’t regret it, even if we do like to complain about it, especially to our spouses! 😉
Q:As this is a mystery, I don’t want to give any spoilers. I have been savoring the mystery a little bit each evening and delighted when it arrived. To be back in Antoine Verlaque and Marine Bonnet’s world has been wonderful, and to slip back to France, even if it is only vicariously, a lovely treat. Les Deux Garçons, one of the most frequented rendezvous locales included in the novel and a legendary brasserie Cours Mirabeau, how do you decide what places will be included which are actually on the map in Aix?
A:When I began my books I used real places but changed the names. I was afraid to ruffle feathers as I know so many people in Aix, and when I began my books there was a court case in Paris involving an English writer who cited the name of a fabric shop in Montmartre and was taken to court by the owners! Plus she only said nice things about them! So I got a bit paranoid. Now I do refer to the Deux Garçons café by its name. The Café Mazarin, where Marine and Verlaque hang out, is really Le Grillon, Aix’s prettiest café. The bakery is really Béchard (Michaud in my books). I make up the names of restaurants as those businesses change hands and names so quickly.
~see more of the actual places in Aix mentioned above by M.L. in this post. Below is a pic of Deux Garçons.
Q:I know readers and fans of this series want me to ask, and I am most curious to know as well: Is there Book 10 in the works and if so, when can we expect it?
A: Yes, I’m just finishing up book ten, a ‘murder backstage’. It will come out in 2021 I hope!
Q:Before I wrap up with our final question, you love to cook. In fact, in our last conversation you shared recipes and ideas for meals along with a cookbook that made my mouth water. What have you been enjoying making or eating as of late?
A:Because of the lockdown I’m really missing Italy, especially Venice, so I’ve been reading and cooking from Russell Norman’s Venetian cookbook POLPO. His Osso Buco with polenta is delicious, although I make it with white wine instead of red. And I recently made his spicy pork and fennel polpette (meat balls). Again, it’s great with polenta, and asparagus. For Christmas my daughter gave me the cookbook PASTA GRANNIES. I don’t have the time, space, or patience to make my own pasta, but you can use store bought (like de Cecco) in their recipes. The stories of these inspiring ladies are wonderful, sometimes very sad but they are women who have rallied and overcome many hardships and who, in the end, love life. I read it in bed at night.
Q:In our past conversations and podcast episodes you have shared some of the most appreciated Petit Plaisirs. If you wouldn’t mind, could you share a simple luxury you have been enjoying this past year and how do you expect you will (or will you) enjoy it once the pandemic is over?
A:Because of the lockdown I’ve gained weight so I’ve started doing Yoga, just via the Internet, and although I detest physical exercise I do like yoga and feel great after. I hope that after this Covid crisis that I keep it up. And I can’t say that it’s exactly a petit plaisir! Haha.
I cannot thank Mary Lou enough for her candid and most personal answers. Her new mystery is a treat. Read The Vanishing Museum on the Rue Mistral: A Provençal Mystery now, and if you want to begin the series from the beginning start with Death at the Chateau Bremont.
Follow her on IG (@mllongworth) and slip away to France if only through social media until you can book your next trip.
MORE POSTS/EPISODES with M.L. Longworth