French Twist is precisely the type of story I usually love – a foreign caper involving museums, priceless artifacts, and a reformed (or is he?) thief hero. While it’s an entertaining enough read, it’s not all that it could have been.
Nick Jarrett was once a master thief known only as the Scorpion, until he was caught in the act by authorities and traded his life for his freedom. Now known as Luc Tremont, he works undercover as a security consultant while helping the FBI stop other thieves. His latest assignment is at a Versailles exhibit, where a recently discovered set of vases made by King Louis XIV’s mistress are to be displayed for the first time. It’s a case with extra meaning for Luc: a new thief is in action, claiming to be the legendary Scorpion.
The exhibit means the world to American professor Janine Coulter. Her mentor attempted for years to prove the existence of the Pompadour Plum vases, only to lose his life shortly before the exhibit. The police determined his death was suicide; Janine is less than convinced. In order to ensure the exhibit proceeds as planned, she convinces the French minister of culture to let her take over as curator of the exhibit. It’s not an easy job, as the museum officials greet her with disdain and try to undermine her at every step.
Then there’s Luc Tremont, whose motives are even more suspect. He wants to keep the vases under tight security away from the rest of the exhibit. Janine is vehemently opposed, knowing this would prevent most people from seeing them and would downplay the significance of the discovery. At first, they carry on a light flirtation. But when the vases are stolen, they find themselves on the run in pursuit of the artifacts – and straight toward a conspiracy where there’s much more at stake than the Pompadour Plums.
The book gets off to a brisk start. It has an intriguing premise and a nice sense of atmosphere. The book perfectly fits the “Bon Voyage” series label in whisking the reader to this exotic locale and making it come to life. There’s a scene in which the main characters visit a chapel that is nicely evocative. It’s easy to picture the place and to feel the heroine’s sense of wonder. The first few chapters unfold quickly, pulling the reader right into the story with a relatable heroine and a sense that something is percolating beneath the surface. She doesn’t know exactly what’s going on and is suspicious, and the author keeps enough mystery around the hero to keep us suspicious about what’s really happening. The beginning tantalizes.
But once the vases are stolen, the story slows down right rather than speeds up. The characters find themselves at a winery in Burgundy, and after a while it seems as though they’ll never leave. There are long sections where they share their life stories, which are predictably tortured and overblown and slow the story down even more. The action comes in intermittent bursts with plenty of downtime in between, and there simply aren’t very many twists to keep the story interesting.
I love cons and heist plots because they normally offer several good twists and surprises. This one doesn’t. It’s very straightforward. In the beginning, the author leaves just enough clues to indicate there’s more going on than meets the eye. But after the theft, she begins to spell everything out in detail, offering scenes from the point of view of several different secondary characters that tell us everything they’re planning and everything that’s going to happen before it does. Most of this information seriously undercuts the suspense. Late in the story, Janine does something that could be a shocking sacrifice, if the author hadn’t already tipped us off that it’s meaningless. It doesn’t help that the main characters have a habit of being slow on the uptake at times, failing to suspect certain things when they really should given the information they have. At times the reader is far ahead of the characters and left waiting for them to play catch up.
French Twist is still a fairly solid read, with a decently crafted romance between two well-defined characters, even if their histories did make me wish for characters with less overblown and melodramatic backstories. The love story is stronger than the heist plot, which will work better for some people than for others, but either way, the unique setting alone makes it worth a look.