How is the (in)famous 19th-century artist Paul Cézanne connected with a beautiful murder victim?
Aix-en-Provence in southern France, 1885. During the summer recess of the court, veteran police inspector Albert Franc importunes young judge Bernard Martin to view a newly discovered body in the absence of the vacationing prosecutor. Martin is amazed to recognize the red-headed victim, found strangled in a quarry on the outskirts of the city. She is Solange Vernet, a law student whose intelligence and beauty captivated Martin in a casual meeting at a bookstore, where they discussed Darwin and the law. Martin feels compelled to assist Franc in his investigation. They first question Solange’s lover, British scholar Charles Westerbury, who, clearly nervous, casts suspicion upon his acquaintance Paul Cézanne, impugning the artist’s character. Concealing his grief until he’s away from the precinct, Westerbury dissolves in tears and determines to track down Cézanne, “the cause of it all.” This is easier said than done, both for the prime suspect and the police. The bohemian Cézanne, it seems, has a loyal pack of friends willing to conceal him. Questioning the artist only deepens the dilemma: Who was this mystery woman who called herself Solange Vernet? Emile Zola figures prominently in the answer.
Pope’s debut includes much fascinating information about the artist and life in late 19th-century France. Its mystery feels more like a MacGuffin enlivening a picaresque roman à clef.