by Peter May
I had previously read two of this author’s books, one a detective story set on a Hebridean Island, the other a mystery coming of age story set in Glasgow and London. I enjoyed both.
‘With great apprehension she leaned over to smell the fermenting juice and felt her head snap back so suddenly that she was startled into calling out. She had recoiled from a smell and a sensation so extreme, that she’d had no control over her response to it.. She gasped, “What in the name of god was that?” ‘
I picked up The Critic on a recommendation, thinking – maybe – some kind of hybrid story? It isn’t. Set in France, in Gaillac, one of the oldest wine regions in the world, it is a modern thriller featuring a forensic science investigator called Enzo Macleod. Scots-Italian Macleod, whose peculiarities include a ponytail and the soubriquet Magpie, muscles in on an investigation into the bizarre murder five years earlier of American wine critic Gil Petty.
Before long, another body turns up, pickled in wine and dressed in the ceremonial costume of a member of the Order of the Divine Bottle. Not everyone in the French police or department of justice are happy with Macleod’s interference; he rubs people up the wrong way. However, he does have impeccable credentials, having help the police on several previous occasions. At least one person, possibly the murderer, has reason to wish him dead and indeed, before long, there is an attempt on his life.
‘The roaring in his ears, he thought, must be the blood pulsing through his head. He put his hands to his face and felt something sticky and warm, and he could smell it, even above the scent of the grapes. The blood wasn’t in his head, it was coming out of it.’
In The Critic, Peter May delves into the French wine industry like an expert. He introduces characters who are winemakers, and wines both drinkable and less so. We have the detailed description of an autopsy of one of the victims, a few erotic moments, family arguments and many of the other ingredients that make for a good thriller. Other characters include Petty’s daughter Michelle, Macleod’s daughter Sophie, several other women, and a delectable female judge. Enzo is a ladies’ man, though not in a predatory way. They seem to be attracted to him, especially the younger ones.
‘More lightning threw the image in front of him into stark relief against the black beyond. [SPOILER] was strung up by the neck. His killer had used the child’s swing as a gallows rope ….’
As Macleod gets nearer to discovering the truth behind the murders, and uncovering the murderer, not only he but the people he cares about are put in greater danger. The climax to The Critic is exciting as any I have read recently, and the solution to the case as bizarre as Macleod’s ponytail.
However, The Critic held another attraction for me. Science and wine are two of my favourite subjects. It is rare that one learns science from a suspense novel but this novel is unusual in that respect. It overbrims with science, the science of winemaking, from the chemistry of the soil to the that grape itself, from the process of fermentation (and its dangers) to the storage and bottling of the wine.
It was no surprise to learn that Peter May does have expertise in his subject matter. He lives in France, has taken courses in wine-tasting and has spent time picking grapes. He has received several honours and prizes in France for his literature. He is a Chevalier de la Dive Bouteille de Gaillac (- there really is such an organisation -) and recently became a French citizen (according to Wikipedia).