In late summer, 1885, a woman's body is found in a quarry near Aix-en-Provence, France. She was raped and murdered. Bernard Martin, a shy new judge in the district, is assigned to the case along with the rough-and-tumble constable in the district, Franc. At first the case seems simple. The woman, Solange Vernet, was probably murdered in a jealous rage by her lover, the English geologist Charles Westerbury. But then they learn that the artist, Cezanne, had a relationship with the woman as well. So maybe it was he who killed her. Underlying the case, and running as a theme throughout the novel, is the French criminal justice system in the late 1900s, the terrifying prospect of being a woman with little means at the turn of the century, and the battle between science and religion.
Barbara Pope Corrado really packs a lot into a pretty quick read. In addition to a murder mystery (or two, or three), she gives readers a primer on French law and the country's difficulties choosing between religion and science. The murder mystery was interesting, but I didn't feel any particular affinity for any of the main characters in the novel, and so I didn't really care whether anyone was guilty or innocent.
I did, however, find the historical context fascinating, particularly the struggle for supremacy between science and religion. I didn't realize that it was a subject battled so openly and passionately at the turn of the 19th century, but Pope makes it clear that in France, at least, it certainly was.
I also don't know much about the French law system, but it seems like it was fairly unjust at the time. And, as usual in history, when laws are lax or unjust, it is often the women who suffer by them. This story certainly highlights that.
As to the characters in the novel- well, to be frank, I could take them or leave them. There were a lot, and many of them had chapters told from their points of view. I found the protagonist, Bernard Martin the judge, to be a nice if somewhat dull man. I just don't think I knew much more about him at the end of the book than I did at the beginning. As to the rest of the characters- Westerbury, Cezanne, Hortense and Franc- they all annoyed me. Westerbury was a pompous jerk, Cezanne was...odd. Hortense, Cezanne's lover, was whiny and crabby and Franc was a horror. The only character that I would have really liked to get to know more (and who did not have her POV represented) was Clarie, Martin's love interest.
I think in some ways the multiple points of view worked for the author as we got to see many characters in different lights- Cezanne, for example, is presented as very conflicted, depressed and ultimately run-down man. We would never have gotten so many dimensions on him as a character if not for the multiple points of view. But at the same time, we lost the ability to really bond with a character because it seemed like we were always being held at arms' length.
Overall, I think the book was a good read, and pretty quick considering the hefty themes it covers. I really enjoyed the exposure to an era of French history with which I am unfamiliar, and I hope to see more books by the author that are set in the same period.