We found ourselves in the Kindle English Mystery Group reading a Ruth Rendall mystery from 1970 & I began recalling what I was reading when young. I remembered reading a lot of Nicholas Freeling in my early 20s, that Gun Before Butter was my favourite, & that it featured a love affair between a butter smuggler on the Dutch border & a young woman who despite an upper class upbringing despised the Dutch bourgeoisie. She got a working class job & lived on bread with olive oil, &she thought the butter smuggler like a sea captain straight out of a Joseph Conrad novel. Had try it again to find out if was as good as I'd thought half a century ago - too bad we can't do that with lovers or wines. The book's long out of print but I managed to pick up a paperback from 1982 from a bookseller in Montana with the marvellous name Annysgranny (yes, this is a free plug), & yes, Gun Before Butter is even better than I ever imagined. It tells a very romantic & deeply moving love story with an irresistibly attractive heroine, & features a favorite theme of mine closely intertwined with the tragic denouement.
Lucienne easily holds her own in the company of my current favourites, Cassie Maddox, Lacey Flint,Beth Cassidy, Diana Quigley & Thea Atwell. If she is not quite utterly fearless, she is certainly ready to cast her fate to the winds. She can also kick arse & like Diana Quigley, wield a knife, as well as having great taste in food & art. And she is a woman of great integrity who cannot endure falsity or betrayal.
But I'd forgotten that our butter smuggler has two different identities, a theme I find fascinating, as in Tana French's The Likeness with Cassie Maddox/Lexie Madison. In Holland, where he starts off the mystery by getting murdered, the smuggler is Mr. Stam, a retired army officer who spends a lot of time at an isolated hunting lodge in the forest near the Belgian border & travels about on a BMW motorcycle searching for good places to fish and getting to know all the locals. Strangely, his fishing gear is unused. But then we find that he also is a Belgian hotel owner named Gerard de Winter, married - it's very much a marriage of convenience - to a forty-something woman named Solange, who manages the hotel whilst he's away, which is most of the time.
Stam & Lucienne have a beautiful love affair till she finds out that her lover has another identity. Unfortunately the Conradian hero has a sleazy double in de Winter.
As I often confess, I don't care much anymore about 'solving' the mystery; what matters to me now are the relationships and the moral lessons we draw from them. The lesson I draw from Gun Before Butter is that love & good intentions are not enough, that relationships demand absolute honesty & total selflessness, & where one of the parties lacks them, Nemesis soon appears in their place.
So now I return to reading contemporary fiction, but cheered knowing that there are some pleasures in life even better the second time around & half a century later. Oh, & I also still love a whole-grain baguette slathered with olive oil.
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