Champagne: The Farewell – Janet Hubbard

I had some hopes for this (received from Poisoned Pen Press through Netgalley, with thanks); I thought perhaps the book would take its tone from the beverage. I rather hoped there would be a brightness and sparkle, along with a look inside a champagne-making vineyard. In the immortal words of Lt. Uhura, “Sorry – neither.”

What it was was the story of Max (short for Maxine) flying off to France for the wedding of her dear friend Chloe, and her involvement as an American (Cop) In Paris with the investigation of the murder that occurs at the reception. (Just to clarify: she wasn’t IN the wedding, she was AT the wedding. Flew all the way from NY to not be in it.) Before, during, and after the wedding, sparks fly between Max and another guest, Olivier Chaumont, who happens to be an examining magistrate (juge d’instruction) – which means that when there is a commotion in the wee hours of the morning, the two of them have to put their clothes back on and go see what’s happening. Apparently, a juge d’instruction does the job of a detective-grade cop in the US, because Olivier is the front-line investigator at every stage. And Max is right there with him, whether she’s wanted or not. She investigates for the sake of her friend, but also (less attractively) to prove herself as an investigator; she only joined the police force because her brother, who died when he was twelve, would probably have followed in their father’s footsteps into the force (how’s that for strong motivation), but she has never seen it as more than just a job, and feels she has never had a case where she wasn’t being looked after by some male cop. Lucky for her, despite the fact that she’s in another country, no one seems to see her as an interloper for long – she wins over everyone with her stereotypical American charm – and she is given remarkably free rein.

I liked Max, too, superficially; as often happens, putting a little more thought into her and her story lessened my liking. The story begins with her drawing a line via text with her current boyfriend, also a cop; a few pages later he breaks up with her by text (in textese, yet). She is completely unfazed by this – I mean completely: she reads the text and doesn’t skip a beat, and never looks back. Throughout the book she keeps a journal, as she says all cops do, which is a combination of personal reflection and detailed reviews of her investigation. Part of this includes notes for a hypothetical future conversation with a hypothetical therapist.

As I mentioned, I had hoped for a look inside the wine industry. Instead, I got a look at the politics of the wine industry; the narrative didn’t follow any character into an actual winery until near the end, when Chloe leads a tour into the “caves”, the storage cellars. Finally, I thought, some insider stuff. But no. While Chloe leads her tourists off one way, Max goes another, and the narrative follows her. By the end of the story, I knew the names of several high end champagnes (at least one of which was fictional, if not more – and they might as well all be for the personal experience I’ll ever have of them); I learned that Perrier makes a champagne (though it may not be THAT Perrier); I learned that the region designated as Champagne may (unless that was fiction) be expanded… Anything I learned about the making of the wine was incidental to the characters’ conversations. What I learned about instead was, sort of, French investigative procedure (it’s very different; autopsies are not standard procedure and it’s considered bizarre for cops to attend; French politics, a bit; some seriously ugly oblivious-wealthy behavior; and the French attitude toward Americans (oh dear). And um….that’s all I’ve got. (Except for the observation that if this book was accurate a lot of French murders must go undetected.)

Setting aside the usual spattering of typos – some quote marks were missing entirely, for example, which made the read challenging, but that should hopefully be fixed by the actual release – the writing left a bit to be desired. Hopefully other things will be picked up as well, which were not simple typos but errors that should have been caught much earlier in the editing process:
– the remark “It wasn’t meant to be” is followed some five lines later in the same block of dialogue by “she thought it was meant to be”.
– In one scene, “Chloe had a lilt in her step” – I don’t think that’s possible. If it is, it shouldn’t be.
(OK, it can be used this way (definition 3 wherever I looked this up, “A light or resilient manner of moving or walking”); I’ve just never seen it, and I still think it was a poor choice):
– On one page, Max “was almost overcome by hunger”; three pages later, with no food intake in between, “Max wasn’t hungry”.
– Random screwed up sentence (not the only one, by a long mark): “We think [ ] may have hidden evidence. That she may have hidden some evidence.” But tell me – do you think she might have hidden some evidence?
– One character has his jaw broken in a fight. Half an hour later he is speaking, albeit painfully, in complete and coherent sentences; a few pages and hours later he is speaking in full and coherent paragraphs. A couple of days later “Max noticed that his jaw had almost healed.” Wow. Remarkable care in these French hospitals.
– Worst of all, though, and possibly least likely to be fixed, was the oft-repeated phrase “their eyes interlocked”. No. Just – no. Absolutely not. It made me flinch the first time; after the fourth or fifth time I wanted to yell.
– Just an observation: Max tells her father at the beginning of the book she’ll see him next week; it’s pretty clear that seven days is what she intends to spend in France. (Though what she intended to do after her friend went on her honeymoon is unclear.) She’s a New York City detective; judging purely on the fictional NYPD cops I’ve seen just taking one day off without interruption is almost impossible– yet she seems completely unconcerned about the length of time it will take to solve this case she’s horned in on. She has no right to work it, strings are pulled to allow her access, which she abuses, and the odds against a solution being found in seven days are pretty damn high – yet she never shows the least concern about whether she’ll be able to see it through.

The characters are inconsistent; Max is likeable, emotional, annoying, dispassionate, and lets everyone around her believe she understands no French at all because at first she is shy to correct the misapprehension and then later because it turns out to be useful. Then there’s the whole thing with her boyfriend; she didn’t even shrug it off. It was as if she barely noticed. Olivier is noble and has been hurt in love, but neglects to mention his super-model current fling to Max until it’s a bit late; he is kind of a jerk. And he and Max spend the week or so covered by the book flipping back and forth between intense dislike and unbridled lust until I wanted to slap them both, hard. Max reminded me of a commercial for the Paltrow Emma: “I love John! (cut) I hate John!!” There was little in-between. It was a bit like that for everyone in the large and sometimes confusing cast (I still have no idea who some of those people were): positive, then negative, and back again, with little “medium”. The character I thought most successful, Chloe’s uncle Antoine, unfortunately doesn’t last the whole book, and even his character became muddled with UFO conspiracies. The German character brought in to be the Obvious Villain everyone wants to be the killer was a cliché straight out of a WWII-era movie; the stereotyping was embarrassing.

The mystery culminates with another cliché, a silly 80’s action movie chase through those wine storage cellars in which the killer’s identity is noted by Max but clumsily hidden from the reader – and any suspense that might have existed in this scene is horribly confused by a combination of style and typo. A chapter concludes with Max in grave danger; the following chapter begins with Max and Yves playing tennis. Wha -? It took me a while to determine that that should have been “Marc and Yves”, and even that was confusing; the chapter remains with Olivier to create a completely silly cliffhanger for Max back in the caves.

This is apparently intended as the beginning of a series in which Max’s relationships and career will be straightened out. Happily for by TBR list, I am not moved to care about either.

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