Over the last thirty-odd years, Robert Parker has become the most influential man involved in the business of selling wine. His overall ratings of vintages and his individual scores for hundreds and hundreds of different wines have the power to send prices soaring or tumbling, such is the reach of his publication. For all his influence, there are plenty of people involved in viticulture who don’t like the way he has effectively created a price structure outside their control, and many who would really rather he didn’t exist.
Probably not too many, though, would take the extreme measure at the opening of ‘The Critic’, by Peter May. The book begins with the body of foremost American wine critic and writer - Gil Petty, emphatically not Robert Parker, although it is impossible not to make the connection - found strung up amongst the grapes in a vineyard. He is wearing the robes of a chevalier in an august wine society, and it transpires that, since his disappearance over a year ago, he has been pickled in wine.
The action is set in the region of Gaillac, not one of the most famous French appellations, but one with a very long history of wine production. Our hero, French-resident, half Italian, half Scottish forensic scientist Enzo Macleod, arrives to see if he can solve the mystery and promptly discovers a series of missing persons, none of whose disappearances can be explained; the local police have pretty much given up trying. He discovers that Petty had been preparing to rate the wines of Gaillac for the first time - with obvious good and bad potential results for the growers, depending on the score he gave them. With his coterie of (mostly female - Macleod is lucky enough to be captivatingly attractive to them) helpers, he discovers the critic’s notes on the wines he has tasted; but they are all in code. Breaking the code requires the help of France’s greatest sommelier and California’s pre-eminent wine scientist, by which time more wine-pickled corpses have been discovered. Macleod is convinced that the motive behind the killings is somehow connected to the desire of someone to prevent the Gaillac wine ratings being published - and the finger seems to be pointing in only one direction.
Past and Present
However, after being attacked himself and finding the icy fingers of the past reaching out into the present, he realises that actually the origins of the murders - of which Petty is only one - date from the French Revolution. Events from two hundred years ago have meshed with the present - including wine ratings - and the perpetrator of the crimes is seen to be exacting a terrible revenge for things gone by. There’s just a tiny detail left open, no doubt to facilitate the appearance of a sequel.
I spent a few days this summer around Gaillac and Albi, and read the book immediately afterwards; it was interesting to see the locations come alive. Even without that, though, this is a good fun murder mystery. Peter May has taken the trouble to get the viticultural detail right, and the balance of dark and light makes for a satisfying read. The only tenuous connection I can offer to the commodity business is that wine is a commodity……and wine underlies the whole story. For those still need a bit of summer escapist reading (to help ignore the carnage in the financial markets, perhaps) I recommend this.
“The Critic”, by Peter May, is published in paperback by Quercus Editions Ltd. It is also available as an ebook.