Peter Steiner is the author of three novels featuring former State Department expert Louis Morgon, currently retired in the Loire Valley of France. However, Morgon gets up to more hi-jinx than your normal septuagenarian. Steiner, who has been a New Yorker cartoonist for several decades with over 400 cartoons sold, has written three books in the Louis Morgon series: A French Country Murder (titled L’Assassin in its paperback edititon), Le Crime, and The Terrorist, just out.
Steiner’s works have been likened to a cross between The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and A Year in Provence. The Washingtonian dubbed Le Crime “A page-turner—like a good Alan Furst or Graham Greene novel,” while in its starred review for L’Assassin, Publishers Weekly declared, “Literate crime thrillers don’t get much better than this.” Booklist termed Steiner’s new work, The Terrorist, “a superb novel and a deeply human story about engaging people, life, illness, love, and terrorism,” as well as a “a compact gem of espionage.”
Peter, it is a real delight to have you with us today on Scene of the Crime. I am sure you are booked solid promoting The Terrorist, so many thanks for taking the time to talk to us today about France as the setting for your Louis Morgon books.
First, okay, it’s hard not to be envious. Vienna is my turf, and while I will not pass up a good glass of Gruener Vetliner, it hardly ranks with a Bordeaux or Burgundy. So I will put the envy aside and ask you to describe your connection to France.
I started going to France back in the seventies when I was still a German Professor. My first close encounter came on a bicycle trip that took me across the whole country. I loved it. I had three more long bicycle trips across the country by which time I was studying real estate office windows with great intensity. It was inevitable that I would eventually buy a house in France. I landed in a village in the Loire valley, the village and the house where my hero, Louis Morgon also lives.
What things about the Loire Valley make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
I should have seen that coming. But did you consciously set out to France and the Loire Valley as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
Actually, the story grew out of the setting. I began the first Louis Morgon novel not as a novel at all, but as a kind of journal about eating and staying in our house and hiking, a way of reliving our stays there. But something in me wanted the recollections to have a direction, and so Louis Morgon was born.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
The landscape, the country, the culture are a strong presence in my novels, a character almost, that shapes the other characters and the action. It is always there, always exerting its power and influence on them and on me, the way it does in life.
Louis is a foreigner, a stranger in France (as I am). But that merely reflects his outsider-ness in life. In France he is as at home as he has ever been anywhere, which means not at all. But he loves it there. He is restless in soul and spirit, a wanderer.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
Except for our friends there, the French don’t know my books exist. And most of my friends–who speak little English–cannot read them.
Of the Louis Morgon novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
Here’s the opening of the first novel, just as an example:
“Every morning, as the bells of the church in Saint Léon sure Dême were clanging eight o’clock, Louis Morgon set the two pitchers, one of hot milk, the other of coffee, along with a cup and a knife, a baguette, the white and blue butter dish, and the little cracked marmalade pot on the battered metal tray and carried them all out to the terrace. If the day was cold, he put on a gray wool overcoat and wrapped an old plaid shawl around his neck. When it rained, he sat contentedly under the faded umbrella as it flapped and rattled in the wind and the rain dripped around him.”
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
My favorite writers use place very strongly in their writings. And they have very strongly influenced me in this–Thomas Mann, Theodor Fontane, Artur Schnitzler, Franz Kafka, all from my teaching days. Then there are Anthony Trollope and Jane Austen. Among contemporaries I like Rohinton Mistry very much for similar reasons.
Peter, thanks again for visiting Scene of the Crime.
For more information on the work of Peter Steiner, visit his home page.