Vulture au Vin by Lisa King
Vulture au Vin by Lisa King (Permanent Press, 2014) presents a pleasingly different structure for the narrative. In the conventional linear mystery or detective novel, we have the setup which usually focuses on a homicide or some moderately serious crime. In turn, this operates as the catalyst for the second phase which is interaction between our series character(s) and the immediate suspects for the current investigation. In the final part of the novel, there’s a resolution where our series character(s) say(s) whodunnit and, under normal circumstances, we all walk away contented. Handled well, this type of novel delivers a considerable punch because, as in all the best feel-good systems, we move from a bad situation to a relatively happy ending where our desire to see justice done is satisfied.
This novel, however, rather cleverly exploits the notion of a frame story wrapped around a Golden Age style murder mystery. In the conventional use of the frame story, the author embeds a portmanteau of shorter narratives inside the frame, or uses the frame as an introduction to the main part of the novel, i.e. the frame is simply an excuse for launching into the central narrative. Here we have the frame show us life before and after a trip to the house owned by Theodore Lyon. As is required in Golden Age style mysteries, this is stuck out in the wilds of San Diego County in a fairly remote canyon called Valle de los Osos where the vultures ride the thermals in search for anything recently deceased to snack on. Some novelists would write this section of narrative as a free-standing novel. There’s the usual introduction of the old vs the new residents. A 92-year-old cares for and defends the vultures. They reward her by finding the dead body of a local girl, murdered by persons unknown. This victim was an occasional worker at the new house perched uncomfortably on the land—and so the trail of breadcrumbs begins. It all ends with more death, and a raging inferno as bush fires race across the water-starved landscape. It’s all beautifully realised.
Except, of course, some readers want to know what happens after the flames died down and people could return to the burnt out homes to find what had survived. And that’s just what this book delivers. Our wine expert, her lover, and the man who protected her all have lives to go back to. This means there’s fallout to deal with as they try to get life back into a familiar pattern. Sadly, that’s not going to work. First there’s the relationship between our heroine and her lover. As we see from her behaviour at the Lyon house, she’s not exactly living a monastic life while away from him. Perhaps surprisingly, the lover accepts the woman’s failure to make a formal commitment. He just gets depressed when the lack of exclusivity is admitted. Then there’s her protector who’s gay and a martial arts expert. For all he runs a self-defence organisation teaching gay people how to protect themselves if they are attacked in a public place, he’s tended to live a relatively quiet life. That begins to change as a new man comes into his life. Such changes to the emotional landscape can be positive forces for good. In this case, of course, question marks remain.
On balance, I like this approach which gives us a real sense of continuity. Too often detective novels in the Golden Age were presented as puzzles at a more technical level for their series detective to solve. For the usual mixture of motives, this heroine finds herself placed in a situation because of her reputation (and that’s not just because she’s a good journalist). Her curiosity and refusal to be distracted means she identifies one of the crimes in motion in this new household. In other words, the several deaths in and around Valle de los Osos are placed in a proper context. We’re not just interested in deciding who the killer(s) is/are, there are a raft of other issues to investigate and resolve. The result makes Vulture au Vin a highly engaging and rather more interesting a book than the usual mystery fare. Add in the bonus of descriptions of wine and good food. . . The complete package sumptuously satisfies all taste buds for whodunnits and feasting at more elite levels of society.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.