Pride Cometh Before the Sale: Behind “Murder on the First Night’s Feast”

There is a C.S. Lewis quote about the blindness of the proud. To paraphrase, someone completely full of themselves is so busy looking down their noses that they’re blind to what’s above them. And what’s above them, of course, is the whole, wide world.

We’re all prideful. Someway, somehow we’re all darn proud of something: kids, cars, bankrolls, something. Hell, writing for publication is itself an exercise in pride. It takes vanity to assume another person would invest their time and money in your words. Yes, we’re all proud because we’re all human, and it’s all healthy enough.

Until it’s not.

I’ve tackled pride as a subject before. In “Crack-Up at Waycross,” (Murder Under the Oaks, 2015) the would-be pecan truck jacker has such a grandiosity complex he’s barely bothered to plan the jacking. “Book of Hours”(AHMM Jul/Aug ’18) is about recovering self-confidence. I’ve even done pride in an amateur sleuth way, one Vi Celucci in “Two Bad Hamiltons and a Hirsute Jackson” (AHMM May ’15) being too self-actualized not to meddle in a Secret Service investigation. Pride is endless fodder for a humor guy. But I’m not sure I’ve done the whole pride thing as intentionally as with “Murder on the First Night’s Feast” (ahem, proudly included in the November 2019 Mystery Weekly).

Enter Madame Feubert. It’s 1932, the Touraine countryside and the height of French complacency between WWI and WWII. Mme. Feubert and her gown-and-tux cabal are the latest in a line of self-declared gourmands devoted – I mean devoted – to the Sanglier a la Montvaste, a cut of boar served at only one Loire River chateau and only at a presumed peak each October. For centuries, their retconned legend goes, the Montvaste family has entertained Europe’s finest palates for a two-week feast and those-in-the-know soiree.

As the proud will do, they’ve self-divided. Mme. Feubert and her side claim the Sanglier’s tenderloin is of course its true choice cut. No, the other side maintains. The tenderloin is fine enough, but the real lover of the Sanglier understands the strip loin has no equal. A small distinction? An important one in the scheme of things? Absolutely, to Mme. Feubert. Damn near life-and-death.

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The very sanglier
(photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Which becomes important because someone has died. A British food writer who left early and unimpressed washes up in the river shallows behind the chateau. It’s murder, and it looks like their pride-wounded host was whodunnit. Be that as it may, Mme. Feubert sees preserving the feast proceedings as more essential than finding the truth. She harries the Sûreté inspector on the case with possible alibis and concocted motives among the chateau staff. Her creative instincts make her a decent detective, something else she takes pride in holding over the inspector. Problem is, she’s still looking down her nose at the facts.

Your man on the scene: Chenonceau, April 2018

In 2018 I had the good fortune to spend time in Tours and the Loire Valley (collectively and traditionally, the Touraine). In the 15th and 16th Centuries, as French power grew and consolidated, the Touraine changed from border castles guarding against Moorish incursion into the forested garden for the aristocracy. Even today, a train ride from Tours will take you past dozens of chateaux in styles from traditional to fairy tale. I used Chenonceau as a loose model for Chateau Montvaste, not least because we took a train there and walked the the grounds, and it rained buckets. Plenty of time to explore the place. I was most taken with how Chenonceau life was shaped by the river just outside its walls. How the house even grew to incorporate the river, to span it with a long gallery serving as a bridge. Most of that wound up below the story surface in the final version, though I did toss that dead body in the shallows.

The house was the hardest character to write. Mme. Feubert found her voice and wit early on (unusual for me, but she’s willful), and the suspects fell into place with the requisite work. Inspector Duplanche is my homage to Golden Age sleuths I grew up reading. The victim, Bale, is largely dismissed by our heroine and her friends as a rude inconvenience, not a tragedy. It was the chateau itself that vexed me. Focusing on how grand things were even in their decay slowed down the story.

Worse, basic point-of-view:  Mme. Feubert is well-acquainted with the house down to its boar head carvings and which dead ancestor is which on its portrait wall. She wouldn’t dwell on familiar things except to point out those details when the Inspector seemed oblivious to their significance. It’s only at the end, with the truths unveiled and pride balloon punctured, that Mme. Feubert sees the grounds again with fresh eyes.   

I tried to have each element in “Murder” echo vanity, to contrast the largeness of the house and puffery of its tradition with the smallest details and basest motives. Does it work? I would say so, except as the author I may be blinded with pride.

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Digestifs:

  • There’s no particular inspiration about the boar dish. I wanted the story to deal with cuisine because, honestly, the food is outstanding there. Boar felt right for the area and as something people might feasted on post-hunt. I have no idea if there are similar dishes or even similar boar cut illuminati traditions out there, fact or fiction. Any similarities, if any, are truly coincidental.
  • The story has the castle set on the Loire River. The Loire probably too shallow and narrow in this part of the Touraine. Likely the Cher would’ve made a more accurate choice, but the average reader might not immediately connect that name to this setting. The Loire conjures up a place, and I hoped the reader could do the rest.
  • Likewise, I’m sure some of the police procedural details aren’t spot on for 1932. It’s fiction, everyone. I like me some license.
  • I searched the internet a lo-oong time for French detective names in fiction. I had a couple of cool names for our Inspector, but some were taken already. Others had a close-sounding predecessor out there in fiction-land. Some just seemed like surely, surely someone had used that name, even if the internet search was coming up empty. I settled on Duplanche (“Of the plank”), mostly for its commoner sound that would feed Mme. Feubert’s misplaced condescension.
  • Things that I changed along the editing way: the murderer, the title, the twist, and literally every character name except the husband’s first name. So not much.

2 Replies to “Pride Cometh Before the Sale: Behind “Murder on the First Night’s Feast””

    1. Thanks so much, and again I consider this high praise. Mme. Feubert made her opinions known as I wrote her, not least about her husband. And Jacques kind of is a gourdhead, in his 1%-er way.

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