Martin Walker's laconic protagonist, Benoit Courreges, better known as Bruno, is the kind of fictional character you know you're going to miss after you finish the book. And he lives in a place whose splendid beauty and pastoral grace you yearn to escape to - well, maybe except for the grisly murder that just took place, and the fact that the townspeople in the little French hamlet of St. Denis may not be as innocent as they'd like to think.
Bruno is an unmarried police officer who serves a tiny community where he knows everyone's name and history and enjoys a close relationship with the town's mayor. He's a soft spoken, gentle man with enviable people skills, and the townspeople are happy to bring him a covered dish or a bottle of wine from time to time. He settles most disputes by either diverting the aggrieved parties' attention away from the problem or, when he feels people are more important than the letter of the law, turning a blind eye. He doesn't even carry a gun.
Even though he has no deputy named Barney, no son called Opie and no Aunt Bee, Bruno reminds me of the popular television character from the 1960s, Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry. Andy didn't carry a gun either and he operated on the principle that people are basically good and are often more important than the letter of some fool law. Like Bruno, Andy also had enviable people skills and a ready smile. Both men command respect not by threat or by intimidation, but simply by respecting others, and their towns reward them with their idyllic charms. But Bruno's dark past and St. Denis's sinister secrets make them distinctly more complex and compelling than their first impressions might suggest.
The fictional St. Denis is a rural burg nestled in the Dordogne region of South West France, known locally as the Périgord (the official name of the region before the French revolution), far away from the glitter of Paris but close enough that it feels it must fight to keep its unique charm and remain untainted by 21st century "improvements" -- most notably the rules and regulations imposed upon them by those impersonal authorities of the European Union. Adding insult to injury are the unannounced visits by inspectors sent to enforce those rules -- especially the rules about the manufacture of St. Denis's homemade delicacies. How can a town maintain its tourist destination status without the charm of local farmers' market goods unfettered by the whims of the EU? St. Denis wants nothing more than to fly under Paris' radar and tend to its own business in its own way.
Too bad all is disrupted when a citizen, a loner, is brutally murdered right in his own home. Even though Hamid Mustafa al-Bakr is an Arab and a relative newcomer, he's a decorated war veteran and his son and grandson have lived in St. Denis for many years. His murder -- particularly the inflammatory racial message it sends -- brings the best and the worst of Paris law enforcement descending upon the town like locusts. In the meantime, everyone learns more than they ever wanted to know about the small town's secret grudges, whose smoldering embers can re-ignite flames powerful enough to destroy a community and divide a country still struggling with the racial problems of yesterday (see sidebar) even as it faces new ones today.
Of course Bruno uncovers the truth, solves the crime and slips contentedly into the fog that conceals fictional characters between books, leaving me feeling as though this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. I'm glad to know that Walker promises more Bruno books. As for the flagship novel of the series, it was such a pleasure to read that I can't help but suspect Walker had equal fun writing it. It's as though he thoroughly enjoyed creating a fictional Eden with its complex-yet-straightforward gendarmes and then reveled in throwing a shocking occurrence into the mix -- just for the fun of it.
Image: The Dordogne River in Périgord
BrunoChiefofPolice.com where you can find a wealth of information on this new series including background about the Perigord region of France, its food and wine, the fictional town of St Denis, Bruno's friends and his male basset hound named Gigi.
The Series to Date
Bruno, Chief of Police
The Dark Vineyard, already published in the UK, publishing in the USA in July 2010
The Black Diamond, publishing in the UK in August 2010
This review was originally published in April 2009, and has been updated for the April 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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