Reviewed by Linda Boa
Ahh! Just look at that cover of a beautiful French country town in the sunset; small enough so everyone knows everyone else who matters. That’s where Benoît Courrèges – Bruno – is Chief of Police. It’s a fictional town called St Denis, in the Dordogne. This, the eighth in the series, but my first, is basically selling that uniquely English middle class dream of leaving the UK and taking off to the French countryside, buying a farmhouse, installing a pool, toying with a small vineyard, and getting along wonderfully with the locals, whilst learning to speak French like a native…sounds heavenly, doesn’t it?
Of course, we’ve all read enough horror stories about how badly wrong the French (or Tuscan, or Spanish…) dream can go, but everything in St Denis is lovely – bar the odd murder here and there…
Bruno himself is adorable – romantic, yet pragmatic, spending his time riding and with his Basset hound Balzac. He has an extensive vegetable garden, and is a wonderful cook (warning: this book is filled with gastroporn, which will have you yearning for pâté, and French bread, and good coffee, and venison, and endless cheese – and possibly even wild boar!)
The book begins with Bruno accompanying an elderly friend to the 90th birthday party of the Patriarch (as Colonel Jean-Marc Desaix is known throughout the Republic), a legendary French pilot and national hero with a large and complex, though apparently fairly close, family. At the party, there’s a slight disturbance involving Gilbert, a very old and close friend of the family, drunk, attempting to tell Chantal, one of the Patriarch’s grandchildren, something he insists is of the utmost importance. He is hustled away to prevent embarrassment, but is found the next morning, dead. As he was allegedly an alcoholic who choked on his own vomit, the death certificate is signed before Bruno has even arrived at the scene of the death, against protocol. Bruno’s positive that the dead man, Gilbert, had been stone cold sober only minutes before he was removed from the party, and decides to investigate the matter further. But within a couple of days he discovers Gilbert’s body has been cremated, ruling out any toxicology tests.
Meanwhile, the Patriarch and his extended family appear to have taken a shine to our humble village policeman, and he’s invited to various lunches and events by family members. Is the intention that he feels beholden to this esteemed local family, as many appear to do, and quietly drops his investigation? Is it a case for them of keeping an eye on him: friends close, but enemies closer? Or do they genuinely enjoy his company?
There’s also a sub-plot involving a local woman who’s attempting to create a deer sanctuary on her land to prevent them being shot by hunters. However, as there are too many deer, there’s nothing left for them to eat, and they’re causing car accidents – one tragic – as, desperate for food, they leave her unfenced reservation, crossing a busy road. This causes some animosity between local Greens and the hunting fraternity, who understand the need for culling.
Meanwhile, among the Patriarch’s family, Bruno is led to investigate Gilbert and the Patriarch’s time working in Russia, flying Russian aeroplanes and helping them develop their aeronautical industry. When Bruno discovers that the allegedly poverty-stricken Gilbert had in fact been receiving large monthly payments for 25+ years, and was in fact a very rich man, he has to consider that some kind of hush money, or even – the opposite – payment for information, possibly from the Russians, was being paid to him. He was certainly in a position where he was aware of sensitive information, as indeed was the Patriarch. Curiously, the stunningly beautiful Madeleine, now married to the Patriarch’s son Victor, was also an intern in Moscow at that time. She is another keen member of the local hunting fraternity, and has political ambitions, but the support of the Patriarch, France’s national hero, is crucial. Could Gilbert have been about to destroy her ambitions with the revelation of a long kept secret? Or is that too simplistic? The more Bruno looks at the Patriarch’s family, the more he can see possible motives for members of it to want Gilbert gone…But when Bruno himself is attacked, he realises someone to prepared to kill – and keep killing – to keep their past and its secrets where they want them.
Martin Walker clearly has a deep love of the Dordogne countryside, and is a talented plotter. I can easily see why these books do well. Some of his dialogue is just a tad wooden in spots, and Bruno seems almost too good to be true. But the beautiful countryside, food and way of life, intriguing cat-and-mouse storyline, and the clever way he manages to leave the climax open so that almost anyone could be the killer, means you keep turning the pages until you get all the answers. I’d recommend this as the perfect holiday read. Meanwhile, you’ll find me looking out for the rest of the series…
Linda Boa blogs at crimeworm.
Martin Walker, The Dying Season (Quercus: London, 2015) 978-1848664050, 368pp., hardback.