This post originally appeared on the blog Mystery Fanfare, a website of Mystery Readers.org, thanks to the support of Janet Rudolph
The Winery of His Dreams
Pinch me: Just like that, the Bennett Sisters Mystery series has been going strong for thirteen years already, starting in 2009 withBlackbird Fly. Sometimes it’s hard to believe. It’s humbling that readers still want to explore the world with the five sisters and their partners— and for me to come up with new and delicious adventures for them. It’s not always easy, which may explain why I’ve written two stories now featuring Pascal d’Onscon. He is middle sister Merle’s partner. As a member of law enforcement in France, he has access to the best things.
By which I mean criminals, of course.
I am writing fiction, I tell myself. Anything goes, as long as you can sell it properly to the reader. I can involve my five lawyers in any and all sorts of legal issues, secrets and lies and sketchy characters. But I do try to keep things on a somewhat realistic level. So far I have dealt with squatters, wine scams, drug deals, art theft, runaway dogs, and of course a bit of bloody murder. Stumbling over dead bodies in every book stretches credulity at times, especially if your characters are civilians. The five sisters are in various stages of midlife and are professional women, attorneys, not detectives.
Are my books cozies? Yes and no. They aren’t the typical cozy and yet they aren’t gritty either. I have been known to call them ‘women’s suspense’ which doesn’t actually exist as a sub-genre. International crime? Sure… but… You decide, reader. And, please, tell me your verdict.
The problem I faced with the latest novel,Château des Corbeaux (Castle of Ravens— #17 in the series), is that I have given my wine fraud detective, Pascal, an office job in Bordeaux. (What was I thinking? That this would create tension for him, what he needs to do versus what he wants to do? So that worked.) He works for the Republic’s agency that keeps wineries honest, assures that the grapes are from the proper AOC, honoring all rules and regulations the French have for their sacred nectar. Plenty of money in French wine, thus plenty of wine crime to go around.
In the 2020 book, the first starring Pascal, he is summoned to the Champagne region to investigate a bottle of still white wine with a Champagne producer’s label, a vigneron travesty. (There is no point in still wine if you have grapes growing in the proper Champagne AOC. Make bubbly and make money is the implied motto.) That book, Dead Flat, also chronicled Pascal’s dilemma about whether to accept a promotion in the agency. By Château he is out of field work and into the office, renting a smelly apartment, and hating every minute of that illustrious French invention called bureaucracy.
His dissatisfaction with office work bubbles up in his mind as the idea emerges of owning a vineyard of his own. The desire grabs Pascal— being back on the soil, feeling the terroir, the grape on his tongue, the sun on his face. Although he has never been a farmer and in the past disparaged them as being prey to the whims of weather, markets, and a hundred other things, the idea blossoms into an obsession when he spies an abandoned vineyard seemingly waiting for his loving attention.
Thus begins his struggle to become a vintner. Not an easy one for Pascal— one day discouragement and resignation that it will never come to pass because he is too poor to buy a Bordeaux vineyard. (They are often priced in the multi-millions and he is, as he often says, a simple public servant.) The next day a glimmer of hope with strapped owners needing a cash infusion. And then, a death in the vineyard to upset all dreams.
The beautiful countryside of France is again a character in the story, providing spectacular imagery, delicious recipes, and rich history. The rolling hillsides planted with undulating rows of vines, dotted with the turrets of châteaux. Wide rivers flowing to the sea. Quaint villages hiding their secrets behind the intoxicating smell of baking bread and the piety of charming churches. I love the long, bloody history of France and have managed to wind the prehistoric age into this book. There are archeological sites all over France but we tend to hear about Viking ships unearthed in England. France too had its ancient tribes and lost settlements. Iron Age and early Roman finds figure in the tale.
Will Pascal get his vineyard? Will Merle buy her cottages? What is ailing Francie? How did the man come to die in the vineyard?
After those questions, the main events of the mystery, are resolved a few loose ends remained. So I wrote a free bonus epilogue that you can link to at the end of the e-book. (Use the QR code in the paperback.)
a taste of the next mystery in France, featuring those lawyer girls, the Bennett Sisters
A BOLT FROM THE BLUE
The village was not really that— there was no town square, no post office, no store. Not much of anything but overgrown lots and sparse stands of trees. It was approached carefully, with forethought, through the backwoods and down narrow roads, winding around hummocks and along streams. The place was on no maps, if you can get a map detailed enough to show these dusty two-tracks. A hamlet, something Francie somehow associated with small ham sandwiches— ridiculous, yes— that’s what it was. A mere hamlet: a collection of a few houses of varying sizes, on acreages with falling-down barns and grass up to your knees.
Francie wound her way to the hamlet on the ever-smaller roads, following the GPS directions from her phone. Otherwise she’d have been lost for days, driving in circles down shaded lanes, far from civilization. She’d once marveled that cosmopolitan France, land of manners and fashion and cuisine and sophistication, could have such neglected backwaters. Where were the house-flippers and Brits on the prowl? These places seemed untouched by modernization, although she did spot electrical poles along the way and hoped for at least minimal lighting inside the mansion she’d been assigned to open.
The duty had sounded delicious and mysterious, evoking a girlish curiosity that Francie was glad to find she hadn’t outgrown. To outlive curiosity, to be jaded about the unknown and undiscovered, would be tragic. So here she was, deep in the Dordogne, far from vineyards and goats, far from, well, people. To open an old woman’s manse, a family house no one had cared about for nearly forty years.
Putting aside visions of rats and pigeons, she stood outside the stone house, dangling the keys. Of course she was curious. She’d read about apartments in Paris that had been boarded up after the Great War and never touched for sixty years, museums of a long-gone time. Would this old house be so fabulous? Or simply disgusting? Merle’s cottage had been more filthy than delightful at first.
She tried to stay upbeat, searching for then finding the key to the rusty padlock on the door shutters. She had to put her weight on it to get it to budge, but finally it gave way, turning and springing open. Double doors with small glass panes and lace curtains stood inside the shutters. Another key. She rummaged through the tags for the right one.
The house was much larger than Merle’s cottage, although, as the crow flies they weren’t far apart. Francie hadn’t known what to expect. The old lady came from a family of aristocrats, what was left of them in secular, socialist, post-Revolution, post-Napoleonic, post-war France. Deposed dukes, landed gentry, they remained today, living amongst us, although their wealth was often tied up in land and houses no one wanted, or their fortunes gone forever along with their heads.
Two stories high, the mansion’s roof sported fancy gables with odd-shaped windows indicating a third floor under the slate roof. All shuttered and smothered by vines. The wooden shutters were a soft, peeling rose color. Maybe once they’d been burgundy but many summers had faded them. The yard was a flat, dry driveway overrun with weeds. Dry, prickly thistles scratched those who dared to enter. A half-dead tree stood guard, its leaves yellow and black.
Key in the lock, she wiggled it for two minutes before she felt it give. The house didn’t want to give up its secrets, that was obvious. Then it turned, a loud, metallic click. Her cell phone rang.
It was Dylan. “Did you find it?”
“I think so. This must be it.”
He read off the address again, which didn’t help. “There are no street signs. No signs of any kind.”
“Well, if the key works, there’s your answer.”
“I’m unlocking the door right now. The first padlock opened.”
“What’s it like?”
“On the outside, about what you’d expect, dirty and weedy. In the middle of serious French nowhere. All the shutters look intact though, and the roof looks good from the front at least.”
“Okay, call me once you look around inside.”
She slipped her phone back in her pocket and pushed open the double doors. The stale stench of dust, mold, and animal droppings swept past her as if glad to be free. But there was something else, flowery, powdery. What was it? Her eyes blinked against the darkness.
She paused, listening, pulled out a small flashlight, and stepped inside.
Two Weeks Earlier
The day the letter arrived, Axelle Fourcier was preparing for what she hoped was the last move of her life. She sighed, feeling the ache in her back. She was old, she couldn’t move at the drop of a hat anymore. She’d retired two years before from the university and found herself bored to tears at least once a week. She wished she could go back to teaching. That was impossible. The dean had said as much, a glassy horror in his eyes at the thought. So she now had all the time she wanted to read history and keep up on her native French. That was excellent, she tried to persuade herself. Keep the brain active. She did read for hours each day, but mostly in English. For the French she watched France 24 news on their website, and found it dry as toast.
The letter at least added a minor frisson to her thrilling day of packing boxes. She gave them a stare, piled haphazardly in the hallway. Who knew if she’d be happier, healthier, more engaged in life in North Carolina than Oklahoma? She certainly didn’t, although she’d decided she’d rather be blown off the Earth by ahurricane than die a mouldering death in the flatlands of America. The little beach house had called to her. At least hurricanes weren’t boring.
The letter was from an attorney’s office. In Paris. That gave her a slight chill. Paris. Flashbacks of her youth, burning cars in the streets, sitting arm-in-arm with thousands of classmates under the Arc de Triomphe, then marching, chanting: “Adieu, de Gaulle!” So long ago and yet she could still smell the asphalt of the streets and the melting rubber tires of the cars.
She walked out onto the porch of her house, just blocks from the university campus, carrying the unopened letter and shaking the images from her head. The past still haunted her. She thought she’d put it to bed years ago but it was obvious she had not.
She stared at the ornate handwriting on the envelope, in blue ink and very French, with her name and address. She sighed, squared her shoulders, and tore open the flap. A single sheet of fine stationery was folded inside.
The name of the law firm rang a distant bell in her mind. Where had she heard it? The letter was in French, which seemed presumptuous after all these years.
It is with the greatest sympathy and sadness that we must inform you that your great-aunt, Mathilde Fourcier, has died. Her long life must be a consolation to you and all her relatives. She died without issue so leaves her estate to you and your cousin, Lucien Daucourt, of Paris.
Monsieur Daucourt has personally examined the estate papers and informed us of your address. This took some time, as apparently you have not recently corresponded. The elder Madame Fourcier passed away on May 3 of this year, four months ago. M. Daucourt took charge of arranging her effects and has placed the urn with her remains in the family crypt in — cemetery, in —. We pray that this is satisfactory with you.
It is imperative that we meet with you at the earlier possible time to discuss the disposition of the estate. Madame Fourcier did not deplete her estate, despite being 104 years of age. There is much to examine. Therefore, we request your presence in Paris at your soonest convenience. Please call us at the number above.
Axelle sat down on a dusty porch chair and re-read the letter. Several of the French legal terms made her squint into the dry lawn, trying to dredge up their meanings. The main message was clear: Tante Mathilde was dead, at 104. She blinked hard. She’d last seen her aunt in 1969, when they were both young. Feisty and independent, her aunt had hair like Brigitte Bardot and a string of high society boyfriends, none of whom she liked well enough to marry. She was so charming and exciting, a light in the stratosphere to the teenage girl. Axelle could hear her laugh now, head thrown back, crimson lipstick, full-throated as a lark.
Axelle closed her eyes, a sadness for the past washing over her. The French curse, this pitiful nostalgia for things that will never be again. This melancholy for “temps perdu,” as Proust called it. He couldn’t find his lost time, and the search for it crippled him. She would not let nostalgia cripple her. She was as American, as modern, as optimistic, as anyone. She’d worked so hard to cleanse herself from the eroding pessimism she saw in her countrymen.
But it was still with her. Her curse, because, try as she might, she was still French.
She took a deep breath and stared at the letter in her lap. Her tantine had not forgotten her. And also this cousin. Who was he? She had no memory of any cousin named Lucien. Their correspondence was nonexistent. There couldn’t be much left of the estate, despite what the attorneys said, not after 104 years of extravagance as only a woman who was rich, wild, and French could live. The question was, was there enough left to warrant a trip back to the past?
She would call the lawyers. It might be nothing. Surely it was nothing.
Going back to France was, after all, against everything she stood for, as she’d told everyone who’d listen all these years. Never! she crowed when they asked if she would return. The looks in their eyes, the confusion over her adamant statements. No one understood, because of course she never explained.
And yet. A twinge of regret stung her. She had missed seeing her aunt one last time, kissing her dusty cheeks, catching her orange-vanilla scent. Missed easing her into her last comforts. Missed feeding her pink macarons and jasmine tea from Mariage Frères, tucking a cashmere shawl around her shoulders.
Axelle sighed deeply, frustrated and tired. Her stubborn pride was a burden. Did she still despise la republique? She felt every day of her age. Did she care anymore?
The newest Bennett Sisters Mystery is now available as an audiobook!
Blame it on Paris is the seventh in the series, all narrated by the very talented Denice Stradling. Denice and I have been working together for years now, and I feel so privileged she continues to narrate (and love!) the Bennett Sisters. Head over to Audible or Amazon for a sample of the audiobook. All the books are available now. If you’re an audiobook fan, like listening in the car, while you work out, while you commute or do the dishes– give the sisters a try on audio!
The Things We Said Today, where the Bennett Sisters and family all travel to the Highlands for the nuptials of Callum and Annie, is on sale for one more day at 99 cents! (Ends midday Monday.) Be sure to check the discounted price on the audiobook after you buy– heck, you don’t have to read it at all! Just listen in your car or around the house. Check out the deal here:
My new Bennett Sisters Mystery has only been out for a month or so, but I’m giving away three copies of it over at Kings River Life. This online magazine started out as lifestyle site in California but the mystery reader section, run by writer Lorie Lewis Ham, has continued to connect writers and readers for years. So when they asked if I wanted to be featured on their site I was thrilled!
Review team member Kathleen Costa included her fabulous review of the book as well. Check it out here: KRL
Have you read Blame it on Paris already? Please leave a review at your favorite online bookseller!
I had a very busy month in September, traveling to a convention in Florida and then to France for research (and yes, a little wine and cheese and some Florida sunshine.) Here are a few highlights.
2018 Anthony Award Winner
Bouchercon is the International Mystery Convention for readers and writers of mysteries of all stripes. It’s named for a writer and critic, Anthony Boucher. This year it was in St. Petersburg, Florida, right on the bay, a beautiful setting. I roomed with my partner-in-crime, Katy Munger, who runs Thalia Press with me. A lotta laughs, some crazy times, and Three Rooms Press won the best anthology for The Obama Inheritance! I have a short story in this wacky collection edited by Gary Phillips. It’s about social media trolls, Edward Snowden, and yes, even Barack Obama makes an appearance. Check it out. AMAZON
With the publishers and fellow contributor, Christopher Chambers
It wasn’t all work– hey, it was a convention and there are a lot of writers in attendance. Katy and I are total goofs together so we continued our goofy traditions. The Tampa Bay Rowdies are the soccer team whose stadium was across the street from our hotel. We ran into Ian Rankin and he told us a Scot managed the team but they would never name a team “rowdies” in Scotland! Like calling them the “hooligans”!
Worst fighting form award: Lise
And yes, I am “well read and dangerous” at the Novel Suspects line-up
I’ve been posting photos of my trip to France over on my Facebook page. Hop over there to take a look! FACEBOOK Here are a few more of the days in Paris and the car trip from Bordeaux, through the Dordogne, the Lot, and the Aveyron, to Montpellier.
Along the Seine in Paris
At the Klimt light show at the Atelier de Lumiére in Paris
In Brantôme in the Dordogne
Oh, the food! Oh, the wine!
Á la plage, Montpellier
Evening at the carousel, Montpellier
Whew! I’m almost caught up! Just a reminder to catch the latest adventures of the Bennett Sisters in the new one, Blame it on Paris.
I’m so excited to share my latest mystery with you… continuing the Bennett Sisters’ adventures!
The new Bennett Sisters Mystery is right around a Parisian corner!
Blame it on Paris is the title of the new mystery, coming August 24. This time it’s Francie’s turn to be heroine, aided by Merle and Pascal in Paris. Francie is not having the best year at her law firm and is made to take a leave of absence while an investigation into allegations takes place. Around the same time she gets a letter from a young man whose friend has been arrested in Paris for drug crimes. When Francie realizes the connection to this American student, she agrees to help with his legal case.
Off to Paris! Where who does she run into at the Pont Neuf but an old boyfriend. His appearance brings back all Francie’s regrets and self-criticism for all her flighty, flirty ways that have gotten her into trouble over the years. Will he help her or hurt her here in Paris? Can American legal brains get a student out of one of Europe’s most notorious prisons?
And will spring ever come to Paris? Francie endures rain, dreary weather, and a search for flowering pink cherry trees as she works tirelessly to conquer her inner wounds, and save a young man from a stretch in a French prison.
Here’s an early review from Kathleen C:
The word “Paris” got me joining in, but it is Lise McClendon’s well-written story, well-developed characters, and engaging banter that kept me turning the pages. Francine Bennett, one of five Bennett sisters and a twenty-year veteran lawyer with Ward and Bailey, Esq., has been dealing with frustrating office politics, sudden illness of a named partner, and a disturbing “he said/she said” accusation that has facilitated a leave of absence. She has also been approached by a friend of Reese Pugh who is in a Paris jail without any friendly lawyer to stand for his defense against drug charges. Pugh’s parentage, personal letters, and inconsistent support from his parents have led to her decision to make a trip to Paris and deal with things in person. Ahhh, croissants, espresso, and the French legal system…mais oui!
This sixth book in the Bennett Sisters series is merveilleux! I was totally engaged in the entire story detailing personnel issues at Ward and Bailey, Esq., navigating the French legal system and language, insights into the delightful sisterhood, and the clever ranting channeling “Lawyrr Grrl” on her blog. Although there is a lot to unpack in this story, it is easy to follow along, and references to past events are not intrusive or a spoiler for those who are newbies wanting to go back and enjoy the series untainted. McClendon’s third-person narrative is informative including excellent descriptions to illustrate setting, cuisine, physical demeanor, and personalities, however, she doesn’t rely just on the narrative style. She pens delightful banter that also depicts tone and emotion. I enjoy the “sisterhood,” and am very taken with Francie. She may have regrets in her life, but she tries to support her sisters, colleagues, and clients to the best of her skill. “Oui!” I highly recommend this book. I was engrossed in all the stories that went beyond just a kid enmeshed in the drug community, and very pleased with the ultimate conclusions, pay backs, and Karma!
3 1⁄2 oz dark chocolate
scant 1⁄2 cup milk
To prepare the poached pears, peel the pears, cut in half and core. In a saucepan, combine the wine, sugar, orange, vanilla, cinnamon and honey. Bring to a boil. Add the pears and cook for 20 minutes over low heat. Remove from heat and let cool, covered.
To make the caramelized almonds, cook the sugar in a heavy saucepan over a medium heat until the sugar thickens to a rich brown caramel. Add the almonds, stirring to coat. Remove from heat and cool. Break up the hardened caramelized almonds and set aside.
To prepare the chocolate sauce, in a saucepan, combine the chocolate and milk. Heat on low, stirring occasionally until smooth. Keep warm.
Spread the batter onto a heated large, non-stick frying pan and cook until done. Fold the crêpe into a triangle and transfer to a plate.
Spoon some chocolate sauce over the crêpe. Top with a poached pear and sprinkle with caramelized almonds.
Taken from the book ‘Crêpes and Galettes from the Breizh Café’ by Bertrand Larcher – Originally published in the FrenchEntrée Magazine.
Have you had a busy spring? I know I have, thus I’ve neglected the blog! I’ve been trying to sell a house, move a houseful of *stuff*, finish a book (the next Bennett Sisters Mystery – yay! Details soon!), plus all sorts of fun travel opportunities popped up. My husband and I went to New York City to take in some much-needed theater and art and culture, then I met some high school friends in Sonoma County, California, for wine-tasting and good times, and now I’m in Seattle (again!) at my son’s place, celebrating a wedding anniversary.
To my lovely husband, who adores lamb, here is the latest in the Bennett Sisters French Cookbookseries. Happy anniversary, honey. I’m not cooking tonight — off to a French restaurant! But if I was, this would be it. ❤?☀
Lamb Shanks with Orange
Lamb Shanks — the lower leg of the lamb — are sometimes difficult to find. You may have to order them at your butcher. The meatier the better, but they vary. Use whatever combination of spices that you like: cloves, ginger, star anise, cardamom, and/or cinnamon. A delicious, warming meal that makes the kitchen smell amazing.
—- OR 2 tsp ground cinnamon, 1 tsp ground clove or ground cardamom or ground ginger
1 navel orange, cut into eighths
1 tsp sugar
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup dry white wine
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brown the lamb shanks in a large, heavy pot. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Turn over, brown other side, then remove from pan to a plate.
Add oil then onion, garlic, spices, and orange sections. Sauté until lightly browned, about five minutes.
Put the cover on the pot and place in the preheated oven for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Lamb should be tender and the sauce reduced. Transfer the meat to a platter and serve with sauce from the pot drizzled over them. Arrange orange slices and whole spices over and around them.