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Four Trowels

MURDER IN LASCAUX

By: Betsy Draine and Michael Hinden
Terrace Books:  Madison, WI
2011 (HC) 

First-time fiction authors Betsy Draine and Michael Hinden have created a charming and elegant little tale of mystery, history and mayhem set in the beautiful river valley of the Dordogne, formerly called the Province of Perigord, in the southwest of France.  It is beautifully written, which should perhaps come as no surprise as they are professor emeriti of English at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Nora Barnes, professor of art history at Sonoma College in the California Pay Area, and her husband Toby Sandler, a dealer in antiques, have enrolled in a French cooking school at the venerable Chateau de Cazelle in Beynac.  Nora also hopes to spend time in the Chateau library and archives researching the life of a minor French artist, Jenny Marie Cazelle, whose long career spanned the years of the late 19th Century to World War II, and whose last days were spent in residence at the Chateau. 

Nora and Toby also manage to finagle their way into a guided tour of the legendary Lascaux caves and the prehistoric works of art sketched on the cave walls more than 15,000 years in the past.  Only five members of the public are allowed to view the magnificent cave paintings per day and Nora and Toby find themselves sharing the experience with a young American couple, David and Lily Press (who coincidentally are also enrolled in the cooking class at the Chateau de Cazelle), the guide Gounot, and an aloof Frenchman whose name, they later learn, was Michel Malbert.   As the little group is completing its tour of the enchanted caves and the breath-taking drawings of horses and bison, the lights suddenly are extinguished in the Hall of Bulls and when they are restored, Malbert is found dead, garroted during the brief moments of darkness.  Who among the remaining party of four could have committed the murder, or was Nora correct in sensing the presence of another in the cave when the lights went out? 

The four American are allowed to continue with their vacation plans at the Chateau once they have been intensively interrogated by the cynical and suspicious Inspector Daglan of the local police.  Each of them is certain that the inspector believes they are his prime suspect.  But life at the Chateau must go on as normally as possible while the police continue their investigative efforts.  Toby and Nora meet the other members of their cooking class, American all.  There is the flighty Dotty Dexter and her young friend, Patrick Greeley, and Dotty’s sister-in-law, Roselyn (Roz) Belnord.  Roz, who is responsible for the three of them participating in the school, is an old friend of the school’s master chef, Marianne de Cazelle.   Others in the Chateau family include sou chef Madame Martin, Marianne’s brother Guilllaume, the surly jack of all trades Fernando, and the patriarch of the family, Baron Charles de Cazelle. 

Between cooking classes and Nora’s research on Jenny Marie Cazelle, the two try their amateur abilities at sleuthing out possible answers to the heinous murder of M. Malbert, who, they learn from Inspector Daglan, was an agent of the Bureau of Historical Monuments and Antiquities, and who was in the region investigating thefts from archaeological sites in the Perigord.  This fact resonates as Nora and Toby learn through their inquiries that Fernando served prison time, perhaps unjustly, for stealing archaeological artifacts and that Fernando had strong words with Malbert about his checkered past;  that the guide Gounot’s brother had been hounded out of the fraternity of prehistorians by Malbert’s accusations that he had been a Nazi collaborator;  that Marc Gounot, son of the disgraced prehistorian, also had sufficient reason to hate government agent; that Malbert had been pressuring the de Cazelle family to yield the location of a cave supposedly located on their property—a cave which might contain prehistoric cave paintings or perhaps even works of art stolen by the Nazis and hidden by the collaborationist de Cazelle family.  In other words, the number of suspects in the murder was almost legion! 

The ultimate answer to the murder in Lascaux, and a subsequent murder in the caves of Rouffignac that hints strongly that Nora might be next, is clever and satisfying; it ties together the disparate threads of a storyline that stretches far back into the history of the Perigord.  In addition to spinning a beguiling tale of mystery, the authors give wonderfully evocative descriptions of the beautiful valley of the Dordogne River and its hamlets, villages and monumental chateaus; the Felibree, a regional festival of Perigordian traditions; the culinary school at Chateau de Cazelle; and even Nora’s research efforts that shed light on the life of the artist, Jenny Marie Cazelle, and inadvertently also sheds light on the mystery of the de Cazelle family.   

Four trowels for Murder in Lascaux!

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*MVAC Educational Programs are supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in these programs do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
*This project was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation.  Opinions expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation.