This is Peter Morfoot’s fifth novel featuring Captain Paul Darac of the Brigade Criminelle in Nice. The police are not immediately centre stage as attention is first focused on the Villa des Pinales, which is where eager men and women are gathering for deceptively harmless three-day courses in wine tasting, perfume making and landscape painting.
Some of these students are from high levels of business, others are retired, many have complex private lives, and a few have dark secrets, as do some of the Villa’s staff. When one of the students, Gérard Urquelle, dies suddenly while visiting a store in Nice, natural causes are initially assumed but Darac and his team soon learn that he was murdered.
As they investigate, it becomes apparent that among fellow students and staff at the Villa are those with reasons for not mourning Urquelle’s death. In his investigation, Darac is aided by series regulars, who include his boss, Agnès Dantier, Yvonne Flaco, Roland ‘R.O.’ Granot and Alejo ‘Bonbon’ Busquet. Those who have read the earlier books will remember these characters and their development is particularly well handled. When Darac and his team move into the Villa and begin to unravel the mystery, another especially helpful regular is forensic artist Astrid Pireque, who is the tutor for the painting course.
As readers of this series will recall, in his off-duty hours Darac plays guitar in the Didier Musso Quintet, house band at the Blue Devil Jazz Club. Although this case doesn’t allow much time for that, music is still important to him and is often on his mind, especially so as an important gig is imminent.
Also impinging on Darac’s investigation are complications in the pregnancy of Noëmi, the wife of another regular, Jean-Pierre ‘Armani’ Tardelli of the drug squad. This medical crisis, centred as it is on parenting, highlights for Darac issues in his developing relationship with another officer, Francine ‘Frankie’ Lejeune, who is at the side of an ailing relative in another country.
While the many subplots and numerous characters might hamper a less-gifted writer, Morfoot’s fluency ably carries the reader through the always intriguing complexity of the investigation and these intertwined lives. The manner in which the backgrounds and personalities of major and minor characters are explored, and the effect their past lives have upon current events and relationships, is also exemplary. Indeed, although crime writing today is not often elegant, in Peter Morfoot’s hands that word comes readily to mind.
Details of the music heard by characters while in cars or mentioned by them in conversations, is listed separately in the end pages. The previous books in this series are Impure Blood, Fatal Music (reviewed JJ 2017), Box Of Bones (reviewed JJ 2018) and Knock ’Em Dead (reviewed JJ 2020).
Essence Of Murder, A Captain Darac Mystery, by Peter Morfoot. Galileo, pb, 421pp. £9.99 / $16.99. ISBN: 978-1-912916-51-1; Ebook: 10: 1-912916517