Reviewed by Harriet Devine
Hooray for Hesperus, who sent me this book for review back in the early spring. I picked it up straight away and started reading it, intrigued by the fact that it is set in a village less than three hours from where I live. Then I saw it wasn’t coming out till June, so back it went on the shelf and I more or less forgot about it. But a couple of weeks ago I actually visited Pont-Aven for the first time – if you haven’t heard of it, it is an almost achingly beautiful village in the south-west of Brittany, the area known as Finistere. Apart from its gorgeousness, its main claim to fame is that Gauguin lived and painted there for a while in the 1880s and 90s, a fact which is central to the plot of the novel. So off it came from the shelf yesterday morning, and I hardly put it down till I’d finished it.
In case you are wondering who Jean-Luc Bannalec might be – well, in a sense, he doesn’t exist. He is in fact a German writer and publisher called Jorg Bong, and this is his first novel. Bannalec, by the way, is a small village quite near Pont-Aven. The novel was published in Germany to great acclaim in 2012, came out in France in April, and now appears in an English translation, very well done by Sorcha McDonagh.
So here we have Commissaire Dupin, who comes from Paris but has been living in Brittany for several years, having been banished there following a nameless event at his police headquarters. He actually lives in Concarneau, another lovely town just along the coast, but is summoned to Pont-Aven to deal with the shocking murder of Pierre-Louis Pennec, the 91-year-old owner of one of the village’s most celebrated hotels. The hotel was founded by Pennec’s redoubtable grandmother, who befriended and encouraged Gauguin and his painter friends (who came to be known as the Pont-Aven School of Artists) in their early days in the village, and the dining room is hung almost floor to ceiling with reproductions of some of their most famous paintings.
But who could have wanted Pennec dead? Could it be his unpleasant half-brother, the politician André Pennec? Or his weak son Loic? Or the slimy art-gallery owner Beauvois, who seems to have secrets? Why did Pennec install such a high-tech air-conditioning system in the restaurant? And how much does Madame Lajoux, the hotel’s elderly housekeeper and Pennec’s erstwhile mistress, actually know? The plot thickens considerably when it is revealed that Pennec had been told by his doctor shortly before his murder that he had a very short time left to live, and that he had made an appointment with the notaire to change his will. Then there’s a second murder…
Dupin is an admirable creation. He bears something of a resemblance to Maigret, and in fact when the novel starts we find him having coffee in the Amiral Hotel, a real restaurant in Concarneau which featured in Simenon’s novel The Yellow Dog. He’s a bit grouchy, not very communicative, and given to a lot of coffee drinking and silent musing. He likes women and seems to have had a rather complicated love life, though this is only hinted at, and we are led to suspect that he may be about to strike up a relationship with the beautiful art historian Marie Morgane Cassel, who comes over from nearby Brest to help with some crucial identification.
Of course, aside from Dupin and the exciting plot with its intriguing cast of characters, it’s Finistere itself that gives the novel its enormous charm. I defy anyone to read it without longing to visit the area, which is lovingly described in great detail. The lovely old villages, the ports, the beaches, even the restaurants and their heavenly-sounding menus, come vividly to life, and I for one can hardly wait to get back there and explore for myself. I’d like to check out the Bois d’Amour:
The landscape became more and more enchanting as the narrow little streets at the edge of Pont-Aven gave way to thick woodland. The trees were dripping with mistletoe and ivy, overgrown and moss-covered. Some of the trees here had entwined as they grew, forming a long dark green tunnel. Now and then the Aven shimmered between the trees on the left side as though it were electrically charged, a pale silver colour. The last of the day’s light bathed everything in its glow, lending the landscape even more of a fairy tale atmosphere.
But this is much more than just a travelogue, and I really hope Herr Bong is at work on a sequel, as Dupin well deserves another outing. Highly recommended.
Jean-Luc Bannalec, Death in Pont-Aven, trans Sorcha McDonagh (Hesperus Nova: London, 2014). 9781843914983, 251 pp., paperback.