A competitive building plan digs up plenty of dirt

By Walt Braun

The word “caper” has airy overtones. A caper carries plenty of adventure but precludes truly dreadful things like serial killers or natural catastrophes. So it is with “The Marseille Caper,” the most recent novel of the south of France by Peter Mayle, a Francophile of the first order.

The story is a worthy successor to “The Vintage Caper,” and includes several of its predecessor’s principal characters. One needn’t, however,’ have read “The Vintage Caper” to enjoy “The Marseille Caper,” though an appreciation of French food – make that cuisine – would be helpful.

The protagonist is Sam Levitt, a resourceful American who, among other things, has investigated high-dollar thefts for insurance companies. That’s how he came to know Francis Reboul, a good-hearted French rogue who might be wealthy enough to buy his own country were he not so content in Marseilles. Both men, and an industrious French reporter named Philippe, have significant others, but Sam’s – a knockout and top-notch business woman named Elena – is the most important in that she sometimes employs Sam to probe a suspicious insurance case.

“The Marseille Caper” has little to do with insurance. Rather, it has to do with a development project competition on the best remaining spot in Marseilles overlooking the Mediterranean. Reboul’s proposal is the most environmentally and Marseille-friendly; it calls for residential structures a few stories tall that blend into the landscape and preserve what’s wonderful. The other two proposals call for residential and business skyscraper communities that might fit in any major city anywhere.

In a fair fight, Reboul would win hands down. But if it were a fair fight, there would be no caper. The selection committee is headed by an influence peddler named Patrimonio, who is in cahoots with a decidedly crooked Brit named Lord William Wapping. Alas, Lord Wapping is badly overextended. He is one step ahead of his bankers and is counting on the Marseille windfall to solve his problems. He’s advised by a slimy lawyer and has a couple of thugs in his retinue to help persuade opponents to see things his way.

Complicating Reboul’s prospects of winning the competition is the fact that Patrimonio loathes him. Thus, Reboul, who knows Sam from a former case and likes him even though they had been adversaries, hires Sam to pretend to be the man behind Reboul’s plan. Sam’s up to the task, and he and Elena enjoy Marseille and environs when Sam isn’t on the job for Reboul.

To say that capers are supposed to be enjoyable and end well doesn’t give away too much of the story. That’s because the joy in “The Marseille Caper” is in the journey from page to page, scene to scene and well appointed restaurant table (or seedy bar) to another. Nobody dies but there is some thuggery and ample corporate espionage, all of which the author handles deftly.

Peter Mayle has a light touch, one that invites to reader smell the Mediterranean air or exotic cheese and to appreciate Marseilles’ history, its bustle, its rivalry with Paris, its gritty side and its high fashion. He’s written a dozen books, half of which are novels. He’s perhaps best known for “A Year in Provence.” It’s an area he knows well, having lived there with his wife for 20 years.

Walt Braun is the Mercury’s editorial page editor.

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