British adman Peter Mayle is almost single-handedly responsible for the absolute crush of British and Americans visiting and wanting to live in Provence in the last 20 years. Mayle's A Year In Provence was so filled with good food, wine and entertaining local color that he was able to make a living writing followups to the book. They include a few meringue-light caper-style mysteries: Hotel Pastis, Anything Considered, The Vintage Caper and Chasing Cézanne, and a novel with a slight mystery element, A Good Year. The only substantive element in these books is the luxurious food and wine, but they are a pleasant way to pass some time and dream of a visit to France.
Not surprisingly, British travel writers have a propensity to want to live in France and to write about it. M. L. Longworth, a longtime travel writer, has just written her first mystery, called Death at the Chateau Bremont, set in the city of Aix-en-Provence. This is the start of a new series featuring judicial investigator Antoine Verlaque and his former lover, law professor Marine Bonnet. I didn't find Longworth to be completely successful in her plotting or creating believable and compelling characters, but she did manage to convey a mouth-watering sense of place and has a promising writing style that makes me think I'll be trying her next book.
Fellow British travel writer Martin O'Brien writes a more gritty style of mystery, befitting his locale: the sun-soaked but sometimes seedy and dangerous port of Marseilles. His protagonist is Chief Inspector Daniel Jacquot, a former rugby player. The Jacquot series doesn't start out well–Jacquot and the Waterman and Jacquot and the Master are weakly plotted–but Jacquot is a strong character and when O'Brien moves his story into country village settings in Jacquot and the Angel and to the Côte d'Azur in Jacquot and the Fifteen, there is more depth to his storytelling. Truth be told, though, O'Brien never gets better in his plot resolutions, which leaves his stories in the second tier.
All the books I've described so far were originally written in English, and clearly by authors reveling in the French lifestyle. Open your horizons to translated books and you'll see the world of the native French. It might not be as pretty as the world seen by the Anglo Francophile, but a mystery fan always wants to see the real thing.
The best-known French mystery writer is, of course, Georges Simenon, whose protagonist is Inspector Maigret of the Paris police. Maigret doesn't wear designer clothes. He can invariably be found wearing a bowler hat and an overcoat and carrying a pipe. He works from a perpetually chilly office. The appeal of the Maigret books is in his style of detection. He is no Sherlock Holmes. He doesn't scrutinize physical evidence, have an encyclopedic knowledge of footprints or tobacco, or dazzle with his feats of deduction. Maigret is a patient observer of people, and his knowledge of people leads him to the truth.
To the non-native author, France is like a lover. Sometimes the writer is in the first flush of infatuation and everything is transcendently wonderful. Sometimes it's a more mature love, with the writer aware of flaws but finding them charming or at least being willing to forgive them. To the native author, though, France is more like family; somebody the writer is indelibly attached to, somebody whose flaws are all too evident, somebody the author may even hate sometimes; but somebody the author is compelled to care about deeply, no matter what. For readers, being taken to either France is a trip to look forward to.
Other suggested French mysteries in translation:
Claude Izner is the nom de plume of two Parisian bookseller sisters who write a series about another Parisian bookseller, Victor Legris, set in the late-19th-century Belle Epoque. There are currently nine titles in the series, six of which have been translated: Murder on the Eiffel Tower, The Père-Lachaise Mystery, The Montmartre Investigation, The Assassin in the Marais, The Predator of Batignolles and Strangled in Paris.
Didier Daeninckx is a left-wing politician and leading French crime novelist. His novels often focus on France's poor record dealing with World War II Nazi collaborators and more contemporary bad behavior toward its Algerian residents and citizens. Novels available in English include Murder in Memoriam and A Very Profitable War.