Mary-Jane Deeb's first novel represents quite a departure from the type of writing she's accustomed to. A professor of international politics at American University and a Near East specialist for the Library of Congress, Deeb's previous books related to her fields of study. With MURDER ON THE RIVIERA, a delightful mystery, you get the distinct impression that there's a whole lot of creative imagination in that deceptively academic mind of hers.
Recent Yale graduate Marie-Christine de Medici --- yes, that de Medici family --- receives a somewhat premature inheritance of $10 million from her very much alive French grandmother, her Grand-mère. So alive is Grand-mère that she decides for Marie-Christine just how she should spend a portion of the money when she takes it upon herself to invest Marie-Christine's money in a local paper in her own hometown of Grasse, France, near Cannes. Yes, Grand-mère is very much the matriarch of the de Medici clan, or at least the French offshoot of it.
Marie-Christine's transition from heiress to working editor and publisher takes a sharp turn when the previous publisher is found murdered --- and every suspect is in some way associated with the newspaper. Things heat up for the budding journalist when several attempts are made on her life, presumably because the unknown perpetrator believes the murder victim gave her information on an unsolved, two-year-old murder just hours before his death.
As in any good mystery, not everyone is who they seem to be, and not everyone is without a few skeletons in their closets that make them prime candidates for a guilty verdict. Deeb handles all the twists and turns and subplots well, and turns out a pleasurable and satisfying read. She also has a wonderful sense of humor and subtly inserts evidence of it throughout the book, as in this admonition from Grand-mère and Marie-Christine's commentary: "'Don't drink on an empty stomach, cherie. Wine can get to your head very quickly.' It has got to my head, and I am quite happy with it there."
As enjoyable as the book is, it is not without its glitches. Thankfully, none are related to the plot. Glitch number one: Deeb frequently drops pronouns, resulting in the kind of sentences that sound as if they were dashed off in a journal or hastily written letter --- "am disappointed" or "cannot believe what I am hearing," that sort of thing. That's not a problem in and of itself, especially since the point-of-view character is an aspiring reporter.
But when a literary device like that is overused and inconsistent, it becomes distracting. I had to read a lot of sentences twice to figure out what the dropped pronoun would have been and therefore what the sentence was referring to. "Get up at the crack of dawn" --- is someone ordering her to do that, or is she "journaling" that? This dropped pronoun bit is also the only problem with the dialogue, which is otherwise believable and natural, and with the characterization, which is otherwise consistent. I just can't imagine all those diverse characters dropping all those pronouns all along the Riviera.
Glitch number two: Deeb uses lots of unfamiliar French phrases that are likely to stop readers who don't know any French and even those who have a basic knowledge of it. I spent way too much time searching my brain's database of college French trying to translate phrases like "sirop d'orgeat" (sounds like something you'd put on pancakes at a questionable party, n'est-ce pas?). Finding out it means "syrup of barley water" hardly helped identify it as the adult beverage it apparently is. Les martinis, anyone?
It's also a bit unlikely that a police investigator would not readily connect a certain sequence of numbers with a bank account, or that the police would not have thought to examine a certain set of newspaper photographs related to that earlier murder --- but I suspect I'm quibbling now. Ignore the French phrases, don't let the dropped pronouns get to you, and forgive the occasional implausible scenario. Just go ahead and enjoy the story.
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on February 4, 2004
Murder on the Riviera