When I began the Samantha Jamison Mystery Series, Samantha made her debut as my protagonist in solving her husband’s death in The Puzzle in Highlands, North Carolina. Certain distinctive characters from that book went on to Book 2, Without Any Warning at the New Jersey shore. When it came time to do the third in the series, 86 Avenue du Goulet Book 3, I decided to take everyone to the French Riviera. Why? Well, we had a house there and I thought the property lent itself to make a very intriguing mystery.
It was an old estate property built in 1954 by a married couple. It was all stone, with stone courtyards and curved arches, surrounded by elaborate gardens. Here is an excerpt from Book 3 describing the mysterious gardens and why it was a perfect backdrop for my next mystery. This was the exact way the gardens presented themselves when we first bought the villa. I merely added the intrigue and mystery, and, of course the storyline.
…I hustled up the stone path, but was startled when confronted by a massive several-foot-high cactus. I barely edged around it and pressed on, briefly turning now and then; noticing the views of the Mediterranean getting better the higher I climbed. A few empty pedestals with broken shards caught my eye too. What happened to the statues?
So many pathways crammed this unusual upper garden, but then they always seemed to turn off to a narrower connected pathway, which automatically led you right back toward the villa. Why the strange maze of paths?
I stubbed my toe and looked down. In the dark, these paths could be hazardous. On the edges of the path, stones were angled in an upright pattern. Intentional?
Whoever initially designed all this must have had a specific purpose in doing it this particular way. Why? Was I over-thinking the garden’s strange quirks?
I turned back to view the villa and spotted that the flat surface of the roof over the garage was also paved with the same earthy colored stone. At the very end of it, two old cement angel statues faced each other. That was it. Nothing else was up there. Why were they the only things up there?
A metal, spiral staircase led up to them. Like a magnet, this property began luring me in and latching onto me. Why was the staircase locked at the bottom with a gate?
I finally reached the upper level area where an abandoned swimming pool sat in disrepair, the mosaic tiles around its perimeter falling off or missing. The unusual structure I had noticed from below was a collapsed cabana, a stark contrast to the well-maintained gardens.
Why the disparity between the pool and lush gardens?
I turned again. The panoramic view at this height was spectacular, but being on a timetable, I had to keep going. I paused once more at a gated ‘fruit cellar’ that I was tempted check out, but staying focused, I turned away instead and hastily walked out the back gate to head for Martine’s.
However, my fascination for the villa and its property wouldn’t let me go. I stole one last look at the gardens that seemed to be calling me back for further scrutiny. Strange. Something wasn’t right. I could feel it…
I also tried to capture the beauty of not only the property but the whole area in general in describing what Samantha saw the first morning she woke up at her leased villa and looked out her second floor terrace at the Mediterranean Sea.
…I stepped out onto the deck. The residential area and town of Les Issambres had not changed much since I was here a year before, just a few new villas and houses here and there had sprouted among all the beautifully landscaped properties dotting the mountainous terrain. Yachts and jet skis crisscrossed far below as the sun reflected off the sea’s surface.
To my left in the distance were the beaches of St. Raphaël jutting out into the water and the magnificent Esterel mountain ranges beyond. Off to my right in the distance was the lovely town of St. Maxine and the bay of St. Tropez.
I looked downward. The small manicured lawn off the living room directly below was shaped in a half circle, just like the upper terrace where I stood. A stone wall, three feet high, bordered it to protect people from falling below.
Part of that curved wall dropped about two stories to the neighbor’s house and their pool, and then it curved around to my villa’s side gardens. Red bougainvillea spilled over it and trailed to the bottom. If you didn’t know where the wall was, it appeared as a lush carpet of red, and although beautiful to the eye, to a veteran, it concealed lengthy thorns, as sharp and painful as miniature daggers.
The wall continued from the back to along the side of the villa where stone arches ran parallel, wrapping around to the front entrance. I looked far to the right where an expansive stone stairway descended from the kitchen patio to a mosaic, tiled fountain.
At the bottom of those steps a maze of pathways cut from the same stone sloped downward along the lower gardens that contained benches and flower-filled urns.
I leaned out further and noticed in one shaded corner a cement table and chairs under a blooming magnolia tree. Ah – a perfect writing spot. I felt as though I had stepped into a Monet painting. At every turn, a blended brushstroke of color! With my agent lambasting me for taking this vacation instead of staying focused for my next novel, it seems as though this burial mystery was just the ticket I was looking for. Apparently my next book was emerging and unfolding right in front of me…
Our neighbors really were Martine, Jean, and their dog, Sonia, as in the book. In the interim of writing this mystery Jean passed away, so I dedicated the book in memory of him with a special thanks to Martine. All the rest of the names in the book are fictitious. I did spend time working in the gardens with our French gardener and the location of all the other properties that surrounded us and their exact locations played right into the mystery, including the house with the red light across the way. The mysterious cat lady who came and went at dusk, slipping cat food under our garden gate really did exist.
All our neighbors were from Paris with second homes on the Riviera. They were always gracious and hospitable to us on every occasion and the complete opposite from which I described the neighbors in the book, then again, you never know. I mean, after all, this was fiction, right? Since then, we have sold the property and I explain in the beginning of Book 4, A Lethal Time what really happened (which was true) to the old villa and it’s property after Samantha and her ‘crew’ left.
Like I said, I merely added the intrigue and mystery, and, of course the storyline. …Okay, Okay, so maybe my characters had a little say in it.
P.S. This is the exact location of my Memoir, The Riviera Is Burning. This is where my family and I fled the famous French Riviera fires one summer and explains my fear of fire to this day. We were a very lucky family.
Chase your dreams and remember, everyday is a blessing.