Having found that her love for her ex-husband, James Lacey, had more or less disappeared, Agatha Raisin, middle-aged owner of a detective agency in the English Cotswolds, decided to hit another obsession on the head.
For the past two years she had been determined to create the perfect Christmas, the full Dickensian dream, with disappointing results. So she decided to flee Christmas by taking a long holiday in Corsica. Her second in command, young Toni Gilmour, was more than capable of dealing with the usual run of dreary divorce cases and missing pets, the bread and butter of the agency.
Agatha had booked a room in a hotel in the town of Porto Vecchio at the south of the Mediterranean island. She had Googled the information and found that it was an old Genoese town with a winter temperature in the low sixties Fahrenheit.
She arrived at the hotel late because it took her more than an hour to find a taxi at Figari Airport. Agatha looked forward to celebrating Christmas with a lobster dinner. No more turkey.
The receptionist at the hotel greeted her with, "I see you've booked in with us for three weeks. Why?"
Agatha blinked. "Why? I'm on holiday."
"But what are you going to do?" asked the receptionist. "Most of the shops and restaurants are closed. You don't have a car. There aren't that many taxis, and the ones that there are don't like short trips."
"I'll think about it," said Agatha wearily. "I'm hungry. Do you have a restaurant?"
"No, but if you go out of the hotel and turn right and then next left it will take you up to the citadel and there are a few restaurants there."
Agatha left her luggage and set off on the steep climb up to the citadel. The Christmas decorations were the most beautiful she had ever seen, but the streets were deserted. She reached the square in the centre of the old citadel. There were two restaurants open and, in the middle of the square, an empty skating rink where men were pouring water on the surface of the ice so that it would freeze overnight. Agatha's spirits sank even lower. She had not imagined Corsica ever getting cold enough for ice to freeze.
There was a heated area for smokers facing one restaurant. She sat down and ordered a meal which turned out to be nothing special and came to forty-two euros, which, thanks to the falling sterling, meant it cost her the equivalent of forty-two pounds.
She sat and puffed on a cigarette and debated whether to hire a car or not. The trouble was Agatha could not parallel park. In fact, she felt happy only when there was an empty parking space that could take the size of a truck. The cars she had seen parked were all tight together. How on earth did they manage to get out without damaging the cars parked up against them, front and back?
Agatha did not want to admit failure. She did not want to return home and say she had made a mistake. A good night's sleep was all she needed. She trudged back to the hotel through the deserted streets under the sparkling golden halo of Christmas decorations around every street lamp.
The next day was sunny. After a good breakfast, Agatha asked directions to the port, where she was sure there must be delicious seafood. "There's a quick way down from the citadel," said the receptionist, "but it's terribly steep." Agatha's arthritic hip gave a nasty twinge. "What about round by the road?" she asked. "How long would that take?"
"About half an hour."
So Agatha set out. And walked and walked and walked until an hour and a half later, she found herself at the port. There was a restaurant open, but no lobster. She ordered a salmon steak, the special of the day, reflecting that she could easily have got the same thing back home in England. At the end...