Monday, April 11, 2016

Murder Novels about Cézanne Focus on a Mysterious Mistress (no. 40)

 by Larry Witham


SO YOU WANT to write a novel about Paul Cézanne, the French Postimpressionist painter. Three elements will suffice: the tale of Cézanne’s secret girlfriend, a murder, and a painting of the girl. The splendid backdrop of Provenance, the painter’s native region in the south of France, will also be a great plus.
            These are the precise elements employed in two recent novels with Cézanne as the centerpiece. In 2009, art historian Barbara Corrado Pope gave us Cézanne’s Quarry: A Mystery. Then in 2015 we have M. L. Longworth’s The Mystery of the Lost Cézanne.
            Cézanne’s life has its knowns and unknowns. One mostly-accepted belief is that he had a girlfriend on the side while in a common-law “marriage” to Hortense, with whom he had a son (and later a formal marriage).
            Other Cézanne scholars don’t see the great painter as being particularly shy or loyal with women, noting that he frequented brothels. Whatever the truth of Cézanne’s libido, these two novels present a story of his innocent love of someone besides Hortense. This object of affection was also a model for Cézanne, so naturally a painting of her is central to the plot.
            In Cézanne Quarry, art historian Pope ties her story to the famous mountain—Mont Sainte-Victoire—and quarries that Cezanne painted. It is the era in which the geology of Charles Lyell and the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin are in the headlines. A British geologist, Charles Westbury, arrives to study Provenance’s rock formations. Westbury gives public talks down at the quarry. He’s also cohabiting with a mistress, Solange Vernet, a girl of mysterious background.
            One day Solange is found dead in the quarry. For the local straight-arrow cop, detective Bernard Martin, there are two suspects: Westbury and Cézanne. The painter, you see, uses Solange as a model. Of course, we will find out in the end that neither of them killed her. But the prospects lend to a lively red-herring across the novel.
            Solange hangs a Cézanne painting of herself in the home she shares with Westbury, which spurs some jealousy. However, Westbury and Cézanne are at odds over more than the girl.
            As a geologist, Westbury values Mont Sainte-Victoir as fodder for scientific theory. Cézanne extolls it as an artistic vision. More than a few arguments arose between the geologist and the painter, and it was these heated sessions—according to witnesses—that have us thinking one of them has committed the crime of passion.
            As the maid in the Westbury household tells detective Martin, Solange called the two arguing men “fools”: “I remember the last words she said before she ran to her room and locked the door. ‘Only two men could fight over a mountain.’”
            Westbury will, in the end, show the greater devotion to Solange. Detective Martin finds out that the real killer is the new police inspector, Albert Frank, who actually is a former criminal who’d once had Solange (calling her a “whore”). At the quarry, Westbury resists his arrest by the corrupt Frank. The Englishman, swearing to avenge Solange, is shot dead, but not before gunning down Frank.
            The story ends on this philosophical note: “Somewhere near the foot of the mountain, Cézanne was rolling up his canvas and tying his easel to a donkey, oblivious to the fact that he had won.  He, not Westbury, would be left to conquer the mountain.”
            This all took place in 1885, when art historians believe Cézanne had an affair just before formal marriage to Hortense. Thus, Longworth also plots her modern-day Mystery of the Lost Cézanne around a search to solve the 1885 mystery.
            The scene is the city of Aix in the region of Provenance. The members of a cigar club learn that one of their members, Rene, has found a Cézanne painting—a portrait of a girl—in the building where the painter used to live (since Aix retains many of its old buildings).
            The next day Rene is found dead. Oddly, a beautiful black American woman, a PhD art history expert on Cézanne from Yale, is found standing over the dead body. Her name is Rebecca Shultz. The list of suspects has begun.
            In all of Longworth’s novels, set in Provenance with a side focus on French cuisine, two sleuths solve the crimes: a widowed judge named Verlaque and his mid-thirties girlfriend Marine Bonnet, a law professor. In this murder case, the killer will not be the Yale professor after all, but rather thuggish art thieves from America who had once worked for Rebecca’s wealthy parents.
            As an African-American orphan, Rebecca had been adopted by a Jewish art-collecting couple in New York. They had amassed Cézanne paintings, giving Rebecca a lifelong familiarity with the painter (and thus her PhD on Cézanne). However, Rebecca feels that her academic peers resent her privileged wealth, so to prove her merit, she’s in France to make an academic breakthrough. She wants to identify the girl with whom Cézanne had his mysterious affair in 1885.
            Fortunately, the painting Rene found in a ceiling panel is exactly that girl. Before long, the Aix legal eagles and Rebecca figure out the model was a young woman who worked at a bakery Cézanne patronized. Sadly, this young woman died the year after Cézanne met her. Sadder still because this is Cézanne’s only painting of a woman with a happy face and bright clothing.
            And it was pure, Verlaque concludes: “Cezanne was interested in ideas; perhaps this woman shared those. Perhaps that was enough to base a relationship on; that’s all there was.” A refreshing case of French prudery, it seems.
            The murder plot is more of a stretch. Back in New York, a gang of art thieves, who specialized in warehouse theft, had stolen works from the Shultz estate in the past. They caught word of Rene’s discovery (by coincidence, hearing Rene’s excitement through the wall!), and set up an elaborate ruse. On their thuggish visit to Rene, he was killed accidently during a scuffle.
            We are relieved, of course, that Rebecca is not the culprit (a novel-long suspect). She will also prove herself to academia. And if that is not enough, she will quickly adopt the non-prudish French manner of love. Young Rebecca, who looks like a fashion model, ends up jumping in bed with Verlaque’s still-married father (a man in his sixties or seventies!) up in swinging Paris, where she thinks she’ll stay awhile.

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