The Vanishing Museum on the Rue Mistral

M.L. Longworth

The following is an exclusive excerpt from The Vanishing Museum on the Rue Mistral, by M.L. Longworth. After the small Musée de Quentin-Savary in Aix-en-Provence is found completely emptied of all its art, local magistrate Antoine Verlaque is called into to find the thieves. But he has never encountered a case more baffling in his career.

I’d forgotten how beautiful this drive is,” Marine said to her best friend, Sylvie. They were heading south on the highway between Aix and the coast, and Marine was craning her head so that she could better see the hills to her right. They were covered in garigue that was brighter than usual because it had rained so much that spring.

Oui, c’est vrai,” Sylvie mumbled in agreement, signaling to pass a slow-moving truck. “How are you feeling today?”

“Oh, I’m fine,” Marine said, smiling. “It was really just those first three months, you know. I was constantly tired.”

Sylvie shifted gears as they climbed the mountain. “Get ready for the view,” she said.

Marine did as she was instructed and looked out of the passenger window. She dared not move, as she knew that she’d only have the view for a few seconds. Soon she saw the sheltered bay of Cassis and caught her breath. “The water is sapphire blue and emerald green,” she said.

“We’re lucky it’s so sunny today, after all that rain.”

“Look at the vineyards,” Marine continued. “How they sweep down the mountain and almost slide straight into downtown Cassis. The contrast is amazing . . . the green blue sea, the orderly rows of vineyards, and the bright white rock of the mountaintops.”

“It really is a paradise.”

“Yes, that’s why I never go in summer. Parking nightmare!” Sylvie laughed. “Give me La Ciotat any day.”

“I agree,” Marine said. “The underdog. City of dockers.” “And dockers’ wives and children.”

Marine smiled. “You sound like my mother.” “How are your parents?” Sylvie asked.

“They’re both well, thanks,” Marine answered. “Maman busies herself with various theological committees and the academic publishing houses where she’s a board member. At least I assume she’s still a board member.” She looked out of the window and smiled. “Maybe she just shows up at the meetings, and they don’t protest as they’re afraid to get rid of her—”

“Perfect description of Florence Bonnet,” Sylvie said, laughing. “And your dad?”

“He loves being retired from his general practice,” Marine said. “He sometimes goes to medical conferences but only if they’re in Europe. Neither of my parents have ever been great travelers. And he gardens.”

“Sounds like a nice life,” Sylvie said as she slowed the car down and they exited the highway.

“Even if the ship-building industry has gone bust, those cranes are a constant reminder of the huge ships that were built here,” Marine said as the tall cranes that once lifted and low- ered heavy metal ships’ parts came into view. They looked like monstrous prehistoric birds. “I hope La Ciotat never gets rid of them.”

“They won’t,” Sylvie said. “The cranes are back in use. I just read in Le Monde that La Ciotat is now advertising her shipyards as the place to get your super-yacht repaired and furnished.”

“That’s a brilliant idea.”

“Yeah, the infrastructure is already in place, and there are so many skilled boat workers here.”

“And look,” Marine said as they drove downhill and into town, “the sea here is just as beautiful as in Cassis.”

Sylvie turned the car onto one of La Ciotat’s main streets and changed the subject. “Your parents must be so excited about the baby.”

Marine shrugged and looked out of the side window. “I guess.” “What do you mean?”

“Well, they don’t really say much. Antoine’s father and his girlfriend, Rebecca, are a lot more excited than my parents.”

Sylvie glanced at Marine. “Your parents have never been emotionally demonstrative. But they’ll come around, you’ll see, once the baby is born and your mother can talk its ear off.”

Marine laughed, thankful that she was there, in La Ciotat, on a sunny day, with Sylvie. She was happy not to think about the baby for a few hours and to have to respond to Antoine’s one mil- lion well-meaning questions a day about how she was feeling and if the baby was moving yet. “I’m looking forward to the confer- ence,” she said.

“That’s great, because late-nineteenth-century Provençal art isn’t everyone’s thing,” Sylvie said, pulling the car into a parking lot adjacent to the harbor. “But some of it is really interesting—precursors to the Impressionists, or to the transition period be- tween them and the boring Academy stuff that went before.”

“Painters like Jean-Baptiste Olive and Félix Ziem?”

“Of course you’d be able to list some names,” Sylvie said, laughing, as she turned off the car’s engine. “Is there anything you don’t know?”

“Yes. I have no idea how a camera works, which is your specialty,” Marine replied. “What’s the theme of your talk today?”

“How the Lumière brothers influenced late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century photographers. The older I get, the more interested I am in pioneering photography.”

“You’re paying your respects,” Marine said, smiling.

They got out of the car and walked across the parking lot, every now and then turning around to look at the sea and the bobbing sailboats. “The Lumière brothers were from La Ciotat, right?” Marine asked.

“They came here on holidays,” Sylvie said. “But they were from Lyon.”

Marine looked up at the pale yellow building across the street, shielding her eyes from the sun. “The Eden,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in it.”

“I’ve only been in once, as an art student,” Sylvie replied. “It was a squat back then.”

Marine slipped her arm through Sylvie’s. “This is doubly exciting, then. Thank you for the invite.”

As Sylvie busied herself preparing for her presentation, Marine wandered through the cinema’s lobby. She looked closely at a series of photos of turn-of-the-century La Ciotat, the most interesting of which showed a ship being launched from the port where she and Sylvie had just parked the car. It seemed to her that the whole town must have come to watch. In it, hundreds of people of all ages laughed and waved, celebrating the construction of yet another ship made there with their own hands and shoulders and brains. In the next photo, taken a few minutes after the previous one, the same ship, now launched into the harbor, had released a four-meter-high wave in its wake, thoroughly soaking those in the front row. The days when a whole city took pride in their handiwork are over, Marine mused. Most of us now sit in front of a computer. And what had happened to the ship builders?

“Time to go in,” a well-dressed elderly woman said. Marine smiled and nodded, following the woman, who was the sort who regularly attended such conferences: perhaps a widow, or a retired academic. After having taken early retirement from the Aix law school more than a year ago, Marine was happy to be back in an academic setting. She didn’t miss teaching or the endless academic meetings, but she did rather miss the camaraderie of colleagues and having a place to go to each morning instead of just shuffling up the stairs to her office in the mezzanine of their apartment. But quitting teaching had allowed her the time to work on writing a biography of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and, she was quite sure now, had relaxed her enough to get pregnant. She was the nervous, high-energy one in their couple. Antoine was the calm one.

She looked around at the dark red interior of the world’s old- est cinema and wondered how many citizens of La Ciotat had met there, sitting in the mezzanine holding hands, watching a Marcel Pagnol movie, in the decades before the cinema was abandoned. The lights dimmed as a small man with a short, quick step marched onto the stage and set his notes down on the podium. An elderly man—probably another well-meaning volunteer, mused Marine—rushed across the stage to lower the microphone. Marine recognized the speaker, who had been introduced by the conference’s organizer as M Formentin. He was a downtown Aix regular. She often saw him in the mornings at Les Deux Garçons, and had frequently seen him when she still had her apartment in the Quartier Mazarin. But why? Had he been a neighbor? He was easy to remember: a distinctive old-fashioned dandy who always wore three-piece suits, a folded silk handkerchief in his breast pocket, and a bow tie, regardless of the weather.

M Formentin began to tell the crowd about a museum and Marine realized that he was the director of the Musée Quentin- Savary, a museum in Aix that she hadn’t visited since she was in her twenties. She wondered what he was doing there. His museum’s collection held mostly porcelain and some old documents and archives, not turn-of-the-century photographs or paintings. At least that’s what she remembered. But he soon answered her question, explaining that he was exploring, as an amateur, the work of the painter Félix Ziem and Ziem’s importance in Provence. The Musée Quentin-Savary had been bequeathed a Ziem painting of a Venetian canal, circa 1902, by the dear recently deceased Mme de Montbarbon. Formentin pressed a button and a photo- graph of the painting appeared on the screen behind him.

Marine sat back, mesmerized. She remembered someone had called Ziem the Turner of Provence and she now saw why. The painting featured a rosy pink building in a narrow corner where two canals met, viewed from a striking angle instead of from the front. The dark blue sky was littered with pink clouds and the blue-green water of the canals shimmered with reflections of gold and white. A gondola poled by two men glided past the pink building; the boat was jet black, making the gondoliers’ bright white blouses appear even brighter. But it was the loose, hazy brushstrokes that gave the painting its Turneresque quality.

M Formentin, although nervous, was obviously passionate about Ziem’s life and work and Marine listened with interest, even taking notes from time to time. It was something she had always done, as a student and then as a professor; the notes aided her memory. She stored them at home in files; one never knew when those bits of information would be useful.

Félix Ziem had lived in Marseille and Martigues, Formentin explained, just west of Marseille, but had traveled to Venice a few times a year until his death at the age of ninety. The Impressionists had admired his work, most of which had been created well before their first show in 1874, and Van Gogh had remarked that there was no blue like Ziem’s. Certainly, Marine saw, the colors were breathtaking, even in a photograph blown up on screen. She couldn’t wait to see the actual painting; Ziem’s blues were cobalt, his greens touched with lemon, his whites like flashes of light.

Twenty minutes later M Formentin finished his discourse and the crowd politely applauded, Marine a little louder than the others. She found Ziem’s life fascinating, especially the fact that he chose to travel by foot, always moving, always exploring, rather than settling down to the bourgeois life that many of the Impressionists had chosen.

Someone in the audience asked if the work had been painted on wood and M Formentin excitedly replied in the affirmative: Ziem felt that wood, especially mahogany, enabled him to add even more color, achieving a glazed effect. After a few other questions, the conference’s moderator was about to end the question- and-answer period when a tall, thin man sitting a few rows behind Marine stood up and demanded a chance to speak. He took the microphone and introduced himself as Aurélien Lopez, the director of Marseille’s Musée Cavasino on the rue Paradis. Marine knew it but, like the Quentin-Savary, hadn’t been there in ages. It was smaller and even gloomier.

“I have some misgivings about this painting,” Lopez began. Marine swung around to get a better look at him.

Lopez went on. “Ziem rarely painted this color but instead painted reds like cherries or rubies—”

The audience muttered in disapproval as Marine looked on, shocked.

“But I have bigger problems with its provenance,” Lopez said. “And the papers documenting its ownership that the dear Mme de Montbarbon seems to have put in your trust—”

Formentin spoke up, his voice loud and strong. “She willed the painting to our museum.”

Marine swung back around toward the stage and looked at the little man, whose face was flushed with anger.

“Before she died,” Lopez said.

“That’s  correct.  You  are  welcome  to  come  to  the  Musée Quentin-Savary and read the documents anytime,” Formentin answered. A number of questions followed, beginning with more academic ones dealing with provenance and technique followed by many about the painter himself. Formentin revealed more de- tails that Marine found fascinating. Born poor, Ziem had trained as an architect before turning to painting; he was a meticulous bookkeeper of his own sales, very unusual for the time; and, as a true Romantic, he preferred to travel on foot. All the way to Italy. “And that will be the final question of the session,” the head organizer cut in after someone asked about vacationing in Venice, “for we seem to have run out of time! Thank you, M Achille Formentin, for shedding much light on this beloved Provençal painter.”

Marine caught Sylvie’s eye. She was sitting in the front row with the other speakers. Sylvie made a gesture waving her right hand back and forth under her chin as if to say, “That was intense!” Marine smiled and nodded in agreement. She gathered her purse and jacket, anxious to talk to Sylvie. As she stood up she felt a curious movement in her stomach. Her hand went quickly, automatically, to her stomach, but then the movement stopped. Was that the baby moving? It hadn’t happened before. Ecstatic, she made her way past the seats and out into the aisle and ran toward Sylvie.


From THE VANISHING MUSEUM ON THE RUE MISTRAL by M. L. Longworth, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Mary Lou Longworth.

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