Saturday, August 23, 2014

Dinner at Antoine's by Frances Parkinson Keyes

There are some books that intrigue, resonate,  and stay with you beyond a few years. Such is the mystery novel, Dinner at Antoine's.  In my youth, my parents belonged to the Book of the Month Club and/or The Literary Guild. The books that were bought were given a home on bookshelves that were in my bedroom. As a voracious reader, I would "borrow" them from the shelves and read adult books at an early age. I am not certain when I read Dinner, but it must have been in my early very early double digit years. From that point, I knew that at some time I had to go to New Orleans and eat at Antoine's, the restaurant that has been serving customers since 1840. In August, that opportunity afforded itself. And before I went, I needed to revisit the book.

Antoine's provides the backdrop for the novel as it is there that Orson Foxworth hosts a party to introduce his niece, Ruth, to his friends. Keyes begins to set the stage for the novel introducing a host of characters at the dinner party and the hours after: Odilie St. Amant; her husband Léonce; her sister Caresse who is about to begin an affair with Léonce; her mother, Amélie; Sabin Duplessis. an old friend of Odilie with whom she was once in love and who was presumed lost in World War II; Dr. Perrault, who has been the family doctor and who delivers the news to Odilie that she is suffering from a terminal nervous disorder that sounds very much like Parkinson's disease; and the maid who has taken care of Odilie since she was an infant. At the height of the dinner, Odilie spills wine on a beautiful satin dress. She refuses to admit to having a shaking hand and does not leave the party until they all leave to go dancing. In less than 30 hours she will be found dead in her bedroom with a gun, given to her by Sabin, by her side. Was it murder or suicide? Police detective "Toes" Murphy asserts that he knows what happened, but does not divulge his theory until all the characters have had a chance to either prove or disprove alibis and motives. The solution will more than likely surprise all readers.

The novel is more than a murder mystery. It is a commentary on the mores of the time, the standing of women in Southern society, and the ways of life of the upper crust society. There is conveyed a sense of entitlement, but also of elegance. The description of Metairie Cemetery revealed what it was like to have a final resting place on "millionaire's row." Although Dinner at Antoine's is not considered one of Keyes' finest novels, it was of the ilk of an Agatha Christie murder tome - a large cast of characters and a detective who was smarter than any of the suspects. A satisfying read, even on the second go-round.

Antoine's was the elegant place to dine whether seated in the main dining room
or one of the private ones.
We had Sunday brunch there and despite the dress guidelines of no shorts, jacket preferred, diners were seated with shorts. It seems that in the aftermath of Katrina, restaurants are happy to have any customers. The ambiance was undermined a bit but the food was well prepared and I got to tick another item off my bucket list.

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