Deadly Slipper, subtitled A Novel of Death in the Dordogne, is an extremely refreshing approach to the mystery genre. These days there is such a rash of mysteries concerning religions and icons (gee, what could have started that?) that it is nice to slow the pace and wander through the French countryside sampling the smells, tastes, and sights all while searching for the main character’s long-lost sister. Michelle Wan appeals to the tactile senses and the story flows along, rather than ripping through like most of the run of the mill mystery novels these days.
Mara’s sister, Bedie, was lost twenty years ago in sinister circumstances, and Mara has lived with uncertainty, never able to prove conclusively if her sister was alive or gone forever. After a failed marriage, she eventually expatriates from her home in Canada to the Dordogne region, the area in which her sister was last seen, keeping alive a hope that she may yet live. Her hopes are buoyed when she finds her sister’s camera in a junk shop, and the mystery gains a cryptic clue when Mara discovers that there is still film in the camera. These photos, she feels sure, document Bedie’s last days, and even moments, but she is unable to decipher them: they are photographs of orchids, with obscure natural references, and they are now twenty years old.
With the unlikeliest of sleuthing partners, a mild-mannered English botanist specializing in the local, temperate zone orchids, Mara sets off across the Dordogne countryside in an attempt to trace a series of photographic events, following Bedie’s footsteps to a twisted, but original answer. Along the way the reader meets all the quirks peculiar to the French countryside. Wan weaves a rich background, and the red herrings characteristic of mystery novels are actually somewhat believable and legitimate, making Deadly Slipper a page-turner with depth and cogence.
Deadly Slipper is a surprisingly intelligent thriller, and Wan’s techniques are sophisticated as she keeps you guessing with twists and turns. She shows a deft hand as she painstakingly weaves the threads of the story together. While the ending is not especially dramatic, this is nevertheless a fantastic book. The quality lies in the overall composition; the story is not simply carried along by well-written passages in between mediocre text, but is consistently entertaining and well-written. It’s a joy to see what has become rather rare these days: a good idea well done. Deadly Slipper is a well-turned whodunit made exotic by the context. Pick it up, slip it into your bag, maybe even reread it, and look forward, as I do, to Michelle Wan’s next work. I just hope she’s got more in store.