Book Talk: A death in the Alps
Catherine Cooper’s “The Chalet” (2020, 390 pages in paperback) is a debut novel set in La Madiere, a skiing resort in the French Alps. The story takes place during two time periods, 1998 and 2020, and the plot switches frequently. The novel is also written from multiple points of view, so it’s important to read the heading at the beginning of each of the 63 short chapters, as well as the epilogue, in order to keep track of developments.
Ms. Cooper is a Brit who lives in the South of France and is an enthusiastic skier. So, it’s helpful if you have some familiarity with skiing terminology as well as British English. Neither is a necessity, but it’s beneficial to know that “piste” doesn’t refer to someone who is upset and that British English words have somewhat different meanings from American English.
For example, Louisa, one of the key characters in the novel, says, “I’ve never been skiing before. It’s not something you generally get to do when you grow up on a council estate, is it? But since I started at Oxford last year, I’ve got used to keeping quiet about that kind of thing. My vowels have rounded out, I say lunch instead of dinner, dinner instead of tea and try to remember not to say toilet.” (Note: A “council estate” is a form of British public housing, intended for low-income families. I had to google that even though I’m pretty familiar with British English.)
“The Chalet” is a murder mystery, but it reads like a drawing-room drama in the best British tradition. In 1998, Will and Adam Cassiobury take their girlfriends to La Madiere for a skiing weekend. They arrive along with a blizzard, and only one of the brothers survives. Will is lost in on an isolated section of the mountain, and his body is not recovered.
A bit more than twenty years later, a small avalanche dislodges a corpse, and it is identified as Will. At the time four people are having a business holiday at one of the chalets, and they are the same four who were present during the 1998 blizzard. Each has a secret, and two of them may have been involved to a greater of lesser extent in the events that occurred two decades earlier. And then, Adam shows up to identify his brother.
I don’t know that you would personally like any of the characters, but they fit in the luxurious chalet, the kind that comes with a “chalet girl” who cooks, cleans, and sees to one’s every need whether it’s caviar or a fur throw blanket. Ria is annoying and secretive, and her husband Hugo is just plain dull. Cass is the subservient wife to Simon, a boastful bore. But the chalet girl is “Millie,” who sees all and knows all is the stabilizing factor that holds the group together.
I’m not a fan of drawing-room dramas, but this one kept me reading. In fact, I look forward to Ms. Cooper’s next book. This was a solid debut.
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Jim Glynn may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.