One perfect June morning in 1995, Louis Morgon, a State Department analyst retired to the village of Saint Leon sur Dême, opens the door of his chalet to find a dead man on his doorstep. The anonymous corpse is apparently that of an Algerian terrorist whose throat has been slit, yet his unbloodied face is as peaceful as the blue sky overhead. Although the tableau, like the title, suggests a continental cozy à la Peter King, New Yorker cartoonist Steiner’s first novel has bigger fish to fry, as Louis’s persistent reflections on his meteoric rise and even more precipitate fall in State soon make clear. Recalling his patronage by Hugh Bowes, the brilliant undersecretary on a fast track to even higher office, his sudden smiling betrayal by Bowes, and the decisive final meeting that left both of them speechless, Louis wonders if it’s possible that the dead man, for all his elaborately established ties to the Algerian underground, was in fact deposited outside his home at Bowes’s orders to pay him back for what the Secretary of State took to be an unforgivable affront. And it isn’t simply possible, the investigations he conducts with local gendarme Jean Renard indicate; it’s true beyond any doubt, certainly beyond Bowes’s pained expressions of hauteur back in Washington. But what to do when you’re an inoffensive painter who’s made an enemy of one of the most powerful men on earth?
Steiner’s studied understatement—the unmysterious tale unfolds largely in retrospective summary—renders the stuff of international intrigue into a coolly telegraphic portrait of betrayal.