The Marseille Caper by Peter Mayle
I need to start off this review with a little theory. Over the years, distinctions have arisen between structuralism, formalism and functionalism. As applied to literature, functionalism goes beyond an analysis of grammar and looks at the function of language in a larger context. So instead of asking about the structure or form of the language, the question is more what the speakers or writers do with it. It’s a more holistic question looking at meaning, authorial intention and the outcomes achieved through the use of the given language. I suppose functionalists are interested in the capacity of language to achieve the author’s intentions. So in The Marseille Caper by Peter Mayle (Knopf, 2012) we have a book which, in all senses, satisfies formalist and structuralist criteria, i.e. when you look at the components of language used, all the properties of language have been most professionally exploited. But when we come to functionalist considerations, there seems to be little attempt made to interact with the audience. There’s an essential passivity about the text which makes the reading experience decidedly dull. What has gone wrong?
As a caper, this is crime fiction that sits on the dividing line between an adventure and a thriller. Many might say this is a false distinction. That in both genres, a protagonist encounters physical danger, so the plots are basically the same. After the set-up, we see the emergence of risks as our hero explores the local environment. Regardless whether the hero is active or passive, the risk matures and positive threats have to be repulsed. In a thriller, the level of suspense and excitement is significantly higher, stimulating the reader’s sense of expectation that serious injury or death are imminent. However, adventures can literally be our hero against the environment, i.e. surviving piranas and other perils when the plane crashes into the Amazon rainforest. Whereas thrillers always feature villains and our hero has to take the initiative in some task or quest. Put simply, if a thriller fails to thrill, it’s a failure. But we can admire an adventure story and enjoy it because our expectations of emotional engagement are initially set at a lower level.
Applying functionalist methods to the evaluation of this text, what should we be looking for? It should start with an analysis of the plot. The point should be to deliver peaks and troughs of emotion, rather like a roller-coaster ride. Overall, there should be a sustained sense of suspense as our protagonist comes into danger. There can be surprises, minor moments of early triumph, some humour, and moments of sadness and despair while the level of danger ratchets remorselessly up to the climax at the end. Set-piece chases and fights will provide high points. Injuries and the deaths of team members provide the lows. As we approach the end, there will be a sense of impending doom. All this needs to be delivered with vocabulary choices to heighten emotion and structural choices, e.g. simple sentences, shorter paragraphs, etc. to produce a page-turner style.
No wait, I did say this was a caper. That means the most we can expect are swindles, perhaps thefts and, when the author feels the need to kick it up a gear, a kidnapping. So perhaps by definition, a book with this title can only be mild adventure. Hmmm. Well this is the second book featuring Sam Levitt. In his first outing, he earned his finder’s fee from the insurance company employing him by stealing the property back from the rich man who had “acquired” it. Impressed by our hero’s ingenuity, the same rich man now forgives past transgressions and employs our hero to front a bid to build some beach-front property in Marseille. Although there are two competing bidders, we’re only interested in one Englishman whose approach to business is to buy or bully his way to success. When it comes to the broad sweep of the narrative, there’s no real sense of threat or menace. Only one person is injured and all problems are easily overcome. Frankly, I can’t remember reading a crime/adventure/thriller novel quite so insipid for months. There’s no suspense and no humour to compensate for the lack of thrills. The only thing that distinguishes it from the pack is the detailed descriptions of the food and wine consumed during our hero’s stay in the Marseille area. Since I like French food and wine, this element of the book was interesting but, otherwise, The Marseille Caper falls completely flat. It’s not functionally fit for the purpose of being read with enjoyment. The only thing in its favour for me as a reviewer is that, at 210 pages, it’s mercifully short.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.