The only reason I picked this book off the shelf in the library is because I was wondering if it was the same Martin Walker I'd been listening to for years as a commentator on my local NPR station. When I saw that it was, I took a closer look and, being a fan of crime fiction, thought I'd give it a go. Little did I suspect that I'd be so thoroughly engrossed by the routine of a small-town French policeman that I'd set aside all other reading for three days to tear through it.
The book is set in a quintessentially quaint and charming small town (pop. 2,900) in the super-picturesque Dordogne region. The opening chapters are all about establishing the sights, smells, and rhythms of the town and the titular character's role within it as a kind of avuncular, sensible enforcer of the law. Well, not quite all laws (especially not the strict food processing laws of the EU), but the more important ones (unless you think drunk driving is important). However, soon enough, the quiet little town is devastated by the murder of a quiet old Algerian -- the father of the town's math teacher, and the grandfather of the town's rugby star.
This stirs up all kinds of tension, and as the National Front, provincial detectives, and prosecutors and politicians from Paris all flood in to get involved, Bruno has to do his best to protect the people of his idyllic town from all these outsiders. He's a bit of a superhero character: amazing chef (food and alcohol are everpresent in the book), wonderful with the town kids (he's a volunteer tennis and rugby coach), jack of all trades handyman, mysterious past (orphaned and then 12 years of army service, including some horrors in Bosnia), and most importantly, single.
Naturally, a love interest emerges (as well as one or two for the future) as the plot eventually winds its way back through time to the Resistance during WWII. Most readers will recognize the red herrings for what they are, and those with a particular knowledge of the German occupation may be able to see where it's all going. Nonetheless, Walker has taken an interesting morsel of largely unknown history and woven it into an entertaining tale. While some might find Bruno to be a touch too flawless, and the setting a touch too precious, I found the book to be an charming and entertaining read. Hopefully this is the first in a series of Bruno books.
on 8 April 2009
Martin Walker's "Bruno, Chief of Police" is a well-crafted mystery which -if not taken too seriously- makes for an agreeable read.
Bruno Courrèges is chief of the police municipale (and indeed the only officer on the local force) in the Périgord town of St Denis. Bruno is an ex-soldier, decorated for bravery in the Balkans. He is manifestly overqualified for his position but he is an orphan and has been struck by tragedy in love. St Denis is his first real home, St Denis' townspeople are his family. " I'm happy here," he tells his more conventionally ambitious lover when she challenges him to seek more from life, "I'm busy, I think I'm useful and I'm certainly not wasted. It's a way of life that pleases me."
St Denis itself is the perfect spot for a Maylesian tradeoff between way of life and the Big World. It is an Englishman's idyllic vision of life in la France profonde. The Sun always shines. Tables are well-stocked with paté ,truffles and cheese. Every Frenchman worth the name has concocted his own vin de noix and believes it without equal. Neighbors help one another build their houses. Expatriate Brits are made to feel at home, even as they commemorate Waterloo day on the eighteenth of June, the same day as the celebration of de Gaulle's Declaration of Free France. Life revolves around festivals, parades, the local tennis and rugby clubs, and, oh yes, the black market. The wily citizens conspire effortlessly to thwart intrusive bureaucrats from Paris and Brussels, even as their well-connected mayor contrives to obtain every conceivable central government and EU grant for local projects. Ah, Toujours Dordogne.
Inevitably, there is a snake in paradise. An elderly Algerian war hero is murdered. Drug runners and neo-nazis appear on the scene. Dark secrets from the War and the Resistance begin to surface. Almost as bad, the powers that be in Paris decide to help. St Denis is flooded with clumsy gendarmes, Police Nationale and a stereotypically ambitious young prosecutor who can barely remember the name of the town he has come to help. Bruno manages to sort all this out with intelligence, wisdom and finesse while at the same time advancing his social life -- not all the visiting inspectrices are unwelcome.
Doubtless, this is an Anglo Saxon version of the Périgord, and perhaps Bruno himself has an English rather than French sensibility. But no matter, the book's world and cast are internally consistent and inviting, its mystery is gripping , its guiding intelligence is acute without being patronizing, weighty topics are introduced without being belabored, and the writing is comfortable and compelling. An agreeable read indeed, and may Chief Bruno appear in a sequel. And, Monsieur Walker, do not leave out those two English women.
on 10 August 2008
A thoroughly absorbing, original and satisfying read, redolent of the sights and smells of rural France. I found it more atmospheric and enjoyable than the Maigret novels I have read, prizing as I do the local atmosphere of a book as much as the actual mystery itself. I found the central thread of the story very credible, rooted as it is in France's colourful history. The townspeople's quiet determination to defend their kitchen sink economy against the snoopers from Brussels seemed as believable as it is amusing. Bring on the next one!
on 28 June 2009
This book was reviewed in the Daily Mail and having spent time in the general area where the book is set I thought it may be interesting. How right I was this is a rattling good story what I would call a page turner.
I couldn't put it down until I had finished it. I would recommend it to everyone.
This is an enjoyable book. Bruno, Chief of Police in St. Denis in the Dordogne, is faced with the brutal murder of an elderly Frenchman of Arab extraction, a decorated war hero. The murder appears at first to be racially motivated - National Front are in the area, and a swastika has been carved in the old man's chest - but as the book goes on a more complex pattern emerges. The book is strong on local colour (though some of it seems a bit 'add-on'). It is quite well written without being at all distinguished. Bruno is an endearing character, perhaps just a little too good to be true, and there are several other characters in the book - the local Mayor (Bruno's mentor), Inspector Isabelle, the 'mad Englishwoman' Pamela, Karim, the murder victim's grandson, and others - whom it is nice to meet. The plotline moves backwards into recent French history in a way which I found interesting, though if you like 'solving' murder mysteries as some people solve crosswords, I really don't think that is possible here. Still, it's a very pleasant and enjoyable book. I think it is ideal holiday reading - perhaps in the Dordogne?
Martin Walker's first-in-a-series mystery is set in a small French town in the Dordogne area of south-west France.
The main character, Bruno, is the police chief/only policemen/rugby coach/tennis coach of the small river valley town of St Denis. Bruno has a "history"; an orphan abandoned by his mother and a veteran of the NATO force in Bosnia, he has settled in St Denis and is becoming known for both his competence in his jobs and for his good cooking.
This novel, which is saved from being a "cozy" by the shocking nature of the crime which Bruno and his compatriots from the larger French police system have joined together to investigate, takes a wonderful look at life in a small French village. But, as Bruno discovers, contemporary life (and crime) often has its roots in the past. And as Bruno looks into the past to solve the murder, we all find out just how much the Nazi occupation of France has tentacles which reach down 60 years to the present.
Martin Walker is a wonderful writer. Though the book is part-travelogue, it never loses it's edge. I'm looking forward to reading more in the "Bruno" series.
on 8 March 2013
Good in parts! Rather pedestrian writing, but loved the sense of place Martin Walker invokes. Really makes one want to visit the region. Most characters somewhat one dimensional especially the women. Although set in the French countryside the book somewhat reeks of middle class England.
on 7 October 2014
Martin Walker must be given full marks for the in depth research he has done in order to describe in detail much of the history behind life in the Périgord and in principle the activities of the Resistance and the counter-resistance in the area during the second world war. I found this book not only thoroughly entertaining but very informative too. Martin Walker very cleverly weaves together his very colourful description of life in his village with the crime he is helping investigate not forgetting his love life which adds a little spice to the story. I shall want to read more of his stories.
This is very different to the psychological novellas written over the decades by Georges Simenon, but it is no less interesting for that. The author’s location is the Dordogne where crimes tend to be the stealing of pies, avoidance of EU regulations on market produce or youthful high spirits. Walker sets a slightly whimsical tone at the beginning by describing the ongoing battle between the locals and the hygiene inspectors from Brussels whose arrival in the area is followed closely by police – with the information being passed on to locals so that they can remove illegal produce from sale.
Bruno Courrèges, the grandly-named Chief of Police in St Denis, is very assuredly presented - an ex-military man who was wounded in Bosnia and then joined the local police on the recommendation of a senior officer. An orphan, he has gradually settled to the pace of rural life, restored a dilapidated cottage, learned to produce his own food and has gained the trust of the locals. His policing duties link closely with his coaching various age groups in tennis and rugby. This rather slight beginning is shattered when the mutilated body of an elderly Algerian is found in his isolated home.
This creates a change of direction and introduces a darker element as the book examines contemporary tensions between ethnic communities spurred on by Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National and deep-seated consequences of the activities of the French Resistance. The political sensitivity of the murder leads to investigators being drafted in to lead, with Bruno’s role being largely to provide local knowledge. One of the external officers is the high-flying Isabelle Perrault, to whom Bruno is attracted. However, the many eyes of rural population and the policeman’s hesitancy limit their opportunities to get to know one another better.
Walker supplies a wealth of detail about the rural location and its mixed group of inhabitants, and the reader begins to understand just how effective Bruno is in ensuring that laws are adhered to, appropriate advice is offered and that he knows well in advance of any likely local trouble that might occur. The dialogue is convincing throughout but, rather strangely, two of the less-convincing characters are English. Investigations into the Algerian’s background make little progress and a parallel investigation, not completely integrated into the murder story, reveals evidence of drug-taking amongst local teenagers.
Walker’s plot reveals a great deal about the situation in France immediately before and during WWII and during the period of President de Gaulle’s withdrawal from Algeria and its violent consequences. It also presents the investigators with complex moral and ethical problems that raise the book much above the level suggested by its early pages.
The first book in a proposed series is a particularly difficult challenge but Walker is up to the task. There is much to admire in the writing in a book that integrates mystery, history and travel, and also offers numerous mouth-watering descriptions of food and drink, both French and ‘English’.
on 14 August 2013
It is indicative of how much I enjoyed this book that before I had finished “Bruno, Chief of Police”, and despite usually being averse to the roman policier or polar (detective novel) genre, I had bought all the books then available in the series.
Chef de Police Benoît Courrèges, whom everyone calls Bruno, is simultaneously the oldest, youngest, most long-serving and most recent recruit in the police force of St. Denis, since he is the only policeman in this charming, mythical town believably situated some miles east of Bergerac in the Dordogne. To resolve this enigma it helps to know that Bruno, responsible directly to the Mayor of St. Denis, is quite distinct from the Police nationale (National Police force), responsible to the Ministère de l'Intérieur (Minister of the Interior), and from the Gendarmerie nationale (National Gendarmerie), ultimately responsible to the Ministère de la Défense (Minister of Defence) and a branch of the French armed forces. Although “Bruno, Chief of Police”, and the subsequent books in the series, can be enjoyed without understanding these, and other, complexities of French bureaucracy, such as the requirement for a Juge d’instruction (Examining Magistrate) to lead certain investigations, such as those involving suspected murder, they add another layer of interest to Walker’s stories.
Similarly, particularly in later books, the complexities multiply with the involvement of numerous other organisations, including the SDECE, DGSE, OAS and FLN (of which more in later reviews); references to French specialities such as andouillette, a coarse-grained sausage, and Pieds-noir (Black feet: Europeans who lived in Algeria before it gained independence from French rule); encyclopedic descriptions of wines and allusions to French folk-memories such as the Voie Sacrée (Sacred Way) from the first World War or the Massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy (St. Bartholomew's Day massacre) of 1572.
Bruno’s adventures can be read purely as police investigations or, by following Walker’s knowledgeable references to, and clear affection for, the area and its people of which he writes, can lead to a deeper understanding of rural and Metropolitan France.
Good as this first book is, both in writing and content, its successors only improve on an auspicious beginning and can be recommended unreservedly to anyone who likes a credible story to which, to whatever level one like to take it, can be added some optional mental stimulation.