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Late Harvest Havoc

Late Harvest Havoc, December 2015
Winemaker Detective #10
by Jean-Pierre Alaux, Noel Balen

Le French Books
Featuring: Virgile; Benjamin Cooker
107 pages
ISBN: 1939474590
EAN: 9781939474599
Kindle: B018GX1ALK
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"Tragedy strikes in the mountainous Reisling region"

Fresh Fiction Review

Late Harvest Havoc
Jean-Pierre Alaux, Noel Balen

Reviewed by Clare O'Beara
Posted March 11, 2016

Mystery Culinary | Mystery Amateur Sleuth

By now we know what to expect from the Winemakers Detective Series—a consistent offering, with an attractive bouquet, fruity notes, good depth with a rich, satisfying aftertaste. If that sounds pretentious, sorry, but read enough of these engaging short books and you'll start talking that way too. LATE HARVEST HAVOC begins in Strasbourg at one of France's oldest Christmas markets.

The food of Alsace includes suckling pig, beef tartare and fish with sauerkraut. Accompanied by a grand cru riesling white. In this mountainous region, the grape harvest continues into late autumn, sometimes right up to Christmas. Cooker and his assistant Virgile, who as usual is equally as interested in women as in wine, are here to sample the Deutzler vineyard's wines and help another vintner turn out a quality wine less sweet than normal. But reports of vandalism to the vines have reached the press, and the alarming incidents continue. Cooker's car tyres are slashed before he even reaches his destination. How much more serious will it get?

Among wines I noted is gewurztraminer which tastes of ginger and honeysuckle. Best with ripe cheese. We learn that Reisling needs steep slopes and southern sun. This makes no odds to the Deutzler family in turbulence, the father having lost his legs when his tractor rolled over on the mountainside, the mother having died from distress, the daughter-in-law expecting a baby. The murdered grape vines are a tragedy. Cooker and Virgile, as usual, find themselves in the midst of a drama when all they wanted was a wine-tasting. Down in the town, the locals boast that in this area, everyone always knows who did it, but the guilty will pay for silence. This attitude seems to stretch back to the Second World War. Cooker is reminded that revenge is a dish best served cold. But Virgile is determined to track down the culprit, at whatever risk to himself.

All this talk of duck and sour cherry terrine has made me hungry, so I'm off to the kitchen. Make sure LATE HARVEST HAVOC the latest offering from Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen is on your menu, if you enjoy foodie or travel stories and crime. The translation by Sally Pane is as always first rate. I highly recommend this feast for the senses.

Learn more about Late Harvest Havoc

SUMMARY

Disaster strikes the vineyards in Alsace. Vintners are tense and old grudges surface. The Winemaker Detective's reputation is on the line as he must find the cause before the late harvest starts.

Winter is in the air in Alsace and local customs are sowing trouble, piquing the curiosity of the famous winemaker from Bordeaux, Benjamin Cooker. While the wine expert and his assistant Virgile settle into their hotel in the old city of Colmar, distinguished vineyards are attacked. Is it revenge? The plot thickens when estates with no apparent connection to one another suffer the same sabotage just days prior to the late harvest. All of Alsace is in turmoil, plunged in the grip of suspicion that traces its roots back to the darkest hours of the German occupation. As he crosses back and forth into Germany from the Alsace he thought he knew so well, Cooker discovers a land of superstition, rivalry, and jealousy. Between tastings of the celebrated wines, he is drawn into the lives and intrigues of the inhabitants.

Excerpt

In just minutes, death would strike again.?The wax- colored skeleton, brandishing a heavy scythe in his left hand, would hit the bronze carillon with the ivory femur in his other hand: one clean hard stroke for each hour that had passed.?Renowned wine expert Benjamin Cooker was waiting, oblivious to the crowd gathering around him. But when the Bavarian tourists began elbowing and pushing him, he could no longer enjoy the moment. He stepped away from the enraptured spectators, who were cooing at the pudgy cherubs, one of them holding a bell and the other holding a sand clock, and oohing and aahing over the intricately carved cabinet, the Latin inscriptions, and the midnight-blue and gold face of the astronomical clock in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Strasbourg.

Benjamin took refuge at the Pillar of Angels to the right of the gigantic clock. He leaned against it. The coolness of the stone sent a shiver down his spine, and for some odd reason he thought of Virgile, his assistant. Where was he? Already flirting with some pretty young tourist at the back of the cathedral, no doubt. Oh well, he’d show up. Benjamin turned his attention to the tour guide.

“This was one of the seven wonders of Germany when Alsace-Lorraine was still German territory,” the guide said before putting a finger to his lips to shush a pair of noisy visitors. The hand of the clock was about to reach twelve.

Death, laughing in the face of time, banged out the twelve strokes of noon, setting off the automata. One by one, the twelve apostles appeared and processed in front of Jesus: Simon, who was called Peter; Andrew, Peter’s brother; James; John; Philip; Bartholomew; Thomas; Matthew, the tax collector; James, Thaddaeus; Simon; and Judas Iscariot.

A rooster at the highest point of the cabinet crowed and flapped its wings three times during this processional march, and Benjamin recalled Peter’s renouncement of Jesus. “Before the rooster crows twice, you yourself will disown me three times,” Jesus had told Peter the night before his crucifixion. The maker of this theatrical timepiece had been well versed in the Holy Scriptures.

Another group had gathered near the throng of Germans. They were elderly, and from what he could hear, Benjamin surmised they were members of a club from Provence.

“Mother of God!” one of them exclaimed each time a new figure appeared in the allegorical theater.

Benjamin heard them call their guide by name: Jeanne. She had silver hair and laughing eyes and clearly knew all about this cathedral and its timepiece. Her talk was peppered with intriguing and amusing anecdotes. He perked an ear and bristled when a few club members snickered at her German-like Alsatian accent.

“Legend has it that when this clock was completed, the astronomer who devoted his life to devising and building it had his eyes gouged out on the order of the city’s magistrate.”

“Why?” a woman asked, holding her purse close to her chest.

Jeanne narrowed her eyes and said quietly, “So that the artist could not reproduce such a work of art anywhere else.”?

“Did he die?” the purse clutcher asked.?

“You’ll notice that I said ‘legend has it.’ Not all legends are true,” the guide said, inspecting Benjamin, who had surreptitiously infiltrated her group. “You, sir— you look like an educated man. Do you know if they really gouged out the eyes of the genius who created this clock?”

Benjamin felt the suspicious stares of the Provençal group, which did not recognize him as one of their own. Jeanne, however, took him by the arm as if to make him a privileged witness to the rest of her talk.

“So, my good fellow, tell me what you think.”

“Um, to tell the truth, I have no informed opinion,” Benjamin stammered.

Jeanne pushed her glasses to the bridge of her aquiline nose, lifted her chin, and began pontificating.

“As a matter of fact, the astronomer was much too old by then to recreate such a work. He soon became deaf and was unable to hear the ticking of this mechanism created for the glory of God. He descended into madness and lost all sense of time.”

“Really?” Benjamin asked.

“Do you doubt my word, sir?” She looked him in the eye and smiled.

“All gifted storytellers embellish their accounts from time to time, and some even fabricate tales. Wouldn’t you agree?” the winemaker said, holding her gaze.?

“You force me to tell the truth,” the guide conceded, clearly delighted that her presentation had struck a responsive chord with this elegant man in a Loden.

“So pay close attention, Mr.... What was your name?”

“Benjamin.”?

“As in Benjamin Franklin?”

“That’s exactly right. As far as I’m concerned, this clock is as much an enigma as the lightning rod.”

“Mr. Benjamin, I love your sense of humor.”

“You are quite witty yourself, Madam,” Benjamin replied with a smile. Then he removed his arm from hers. Enough flirting, he thought.

By now, some members of the club were whispering and sniggering. Obviously, they weren’t amused by the diversion. Jeanne raised her voice and resumed her talk, addressing the entire group while still keeping her eye on Benjamin, who was so unlike the seniors she was leading through the cathedral.

From that point on, she punctuated each well- substantiated point with a question.

“Isn’t that so?” she’d ask, looking at the winemaker.

“Actually, this is the third clock in the Strasbourg cathedral. The first was built in the fourteenth century, and we don’t know who created it. Parts of it are now in the city’s Oeuvre Museum of Decorative Arts. It was called the Three Kings Clock. The second one was built in the sixteenth century. When it stopped working in 1843, it was replaced by the clock you see here. Now, can anyone tell me who built this third clock?”

Jeanne drew out the suspense and inched closer to Benjamin, who stood stock still, his hands be- hind his back.

“A boy happened to visit this cathedral and was upset that the beautiful clock was broken. He asked one of the cathedral guards why it wasn’t working, and the guard told him that no one in the country had the expertise to repair it. With that, the boy declared that he would be that man. His name was Jean-Baptiste Schwilgué. Fifty years after he vowed to repair the clock he finally got his opportunity. By this time he was versed in clock making, mathematics, and mechanics. In fact, he went on to invent the adding machine. Building this clock took four years and thirty workers.”

“Is that all?” the winemaker asked.

“Yes, Mr. Benjamin. By the looks of it, this clock would have required far more time and many more workers. But Schwilgué was a genius. He had spent his entire life studying the astronomical clock. He even dreamed of making one with a glass cabinet that would allow everyone to see the mechanisms inside. But the city deemed the project too costly. Imagine the gem we would have today if he had been given free rein.”

“Yes, but even as it is, this is a true jewel,” Benjamin said.

“Indeed, it is,” the Alsatian woman agreed, giving the winemaker a warm smile.

At the end of the tour, Benjamin thanked Jeanne and tried to slip a bill into her hand. She refused it and instead handed him her business card.

“Our cathedral has thousands of treasures,” she whispered in his ear. “I would love to show you all of them—the heraldic sculptures, the three Last Judgment paintings, and, of course, the celestial globe studded with five thousand stars. You must see it! Let’s make a date to meet another day. Shall we?”

“I’m too intimidated by this clock to give you a date, much less a precise time. Let’s leave it to providence...”

Benjamin hoped she would get the message. But instead of saying good-bye, she took his wrist and clung to it for a few seconds. The winemaker was silent. Finally, she let go and turned around to rejoin her tour group. Benjamin felt a twinge of guilt—was it because he had turned the wom- an down or because he had actually considered making that date with her? No, what he felt was pity for the guide. He was blessed with his wife, Elisabeth, whose intelligence and wit were beyond match.

Benjamin decided to look for Virgile and spotted his assistant ducking into a confessional to answer his cell phone. He’d have a word with him about that. But before he could give the reprimand a second thought, screams rose from the group gathered near the clock.

“Oh my God,” someone shouted. “Get help, quick!”

“It’s too late,” a bald man said.?The winemaker retraced his steps and with some difficulty made his way through the crowd gathered around a small figure on the floor. Above the bloody forehead, he could see a mass of silver hair. Beside the body lay a pair of gold-framed glasses with broken lenses—Jeanne’s glasses.

“What happened?” he asked.

“All of the sudden she just clutched her chest and dropped. She hit her head in the fall.”

From his vantage point on the clock, the Grim Reaper attended the scene, a satisfied smile carved on his jaw. He waved his femur and struck the bell. It was exactly one o’clock in the afternoon.

When Benjamin Cooker pulled open the door of the centuries-old confessional, Virgile, as he suspected, was still on his device, cooing sweet nothings in the dark to a faraway lover.


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