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Onyx reviews: The Vintage Caper by Peter Mayle

Peter Mayle, author of A Year in Provence, brings back Sam Levitt, a roguish former crook who now works as an insurance investigator, to track down 500 bottles of Bordeaux wine stolen from the cellar of self-absorbed Hollywood lawyer Danny Roth. Not satisfied with simply owning a collection worth three million dollars, he arranges to have his cellar profiled in the L.A. Times, which is essentially an invitation to thieves.

The case soon takes Sam to France, where he spends a few days in Paris, a few days in Bordeaux, and a few more in Marseille on a tour gastronomique while following the clues. His investigative partner from Knox Insurance's French office is delightful young Sophie Costes, whose fatigues-wearing journalist cousin knows all the inner workings of Marseille.

The book is a gentle caper that doesn't rely too heavily on logic. The clues that take Sam to France are thin, and the culprit isn't much of a mystery for most of the book. More attention is spent on local cuisine and vintages than on clever detection. Mayle, a British expatriate who has lived in France for years, clearly adores his adopted country. Marseille especially is painted lovingly, despite the city's shabby reputation in the rest of France.

If there's a romance to be found in the book, it is between Sam (read: Mayle) and France, rather than Sam and Sophie, who is engaged to be married. They form a strong investigative alliance, but there is never any question of an affair d'amour. Besides, Sam is still pining for his boss and ex-girlfriend, Elena, at Knox Insurance.

The set piece of the book is a grand tour of the castle-like estate of billionaire Francis Reboul, the so-called King of Marseille, whose caviste has organized the man's enormous wine collection like a small city beneath the Palais du Pharo, complete with a golf cart to traverse its enormous span.

Sam's solution to the conundrum is hardly conventional, but once conceived comes off without a hitch or any real sense of tension. It seems that Mayle has more intrigue in store for Sam Levitt, though, as the novel ends with the promise of a yet another caper.

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