THE DARK VINEYARD by Martin Walker

Book Quote:

“The distant howl of the siren atop the mairie broke the stillness of the French summer night. It was an hour before dawn but Bruno Courrèges was already awake, his thoughts churning with memories and regrets about the woman who had until recently shared his bed. For a brief moment he froze, stilled by the eerie sound that carried such weight of history and alarm. This same siren had summoned his neighbors in the small town of Saint-Denis to war and invasion, to liberation and peace, and it marked the hour of noon each day.”

Book Review:

Review by Kirstin Merrihew (DEC 29, 2010)

The first time readers met this village lawman was in Bruno, Chief of Police. He was something of a French version of Andy Taylor of Mayberry: as a matter of course he didn’t carry a gun, he sometimes upheld the spirit of community well-being rather than enforce the letter of the law, and he dealt with the villagers with a natural but unadvertised psychology instead of simply compelling obedience. He was also single and had a history of discreetly dating a number of women. He was the only local police officer, having no Barney Fife at his side, but when crimes of greater significance than a parking ticket arose he had to collaborate with his immediate boss, the town mayor, and with wider French enforcement agencies, including the national police. He, unlike Sheriff Andy, had a bit of a repertoire in the cooking department and was especially famous in the tiny Périgord commune for whipping up heavenly truffle omelettes. Bruno, whose actual but never used name was Benoît, was deeply content to remain in Saint-Denis, although as a highly decorated former soldier who had traded in one uniform for another, his services would have been eagerly accepted by the Police Nationale in Paris itself.

Bruno, Chief of Police evoked a real French village atmosphere, complete with a likeable stalwart and romantically-inclined local cop as well as a unique bunch of Saint-Denis residents. If you haven’t already read this book, I suggest doing so before immersing yourself in The Dark Vineyard. I didn’t take that advice and although my omission didn’t dim my enjoyment, it did leave me with a few backstory questions that were all answered by happily “inhaling” the earlier novel. Author Martin Walker doesn’t believe in following other series writers in the practice of rehashing a lot of background each time around. In that he respects the reader’s time but also expects them to keep abreast of each installment.

Both Chief Bruno mysteries (and we can safely bet there will be more) benefit from Walker’s sure writer’s hand. His prose is really unassailable; it is clear as a bell and easy to read– although…any reader who never took French in school or has forgotten all he knows should have a French/English dictionary at hand to look up some of the italicized words and phrases such as appellation contrôlée, mairie, putain de merde, croquet-monsieur, or bécasses. The author intrigues us with characters who betray all the faults of our species but also inveigle empathy and understanding from both Bruno and us. And Walker is adept at forming complex plots that are both “cozy” (no excessive harping on gruesome details– just state the facts and move on), yet disturbing.

So what exactly is The Dark Vineyard about? Bruno awakes to a siren that signals fire. Arriving at the scene, he learns that a research station for genetically modified crop experimentation has burned down. He begins an investigation, suspecting arson at the hands of some environmentalists who oppose unnatural alteration of food and worry about contamination of nearby vineyards and other producing fields. Problems heap on for Bruno when a privileged and brash young American named Fernando Bondino pays a visit. He represents his family’s worldwide wine corporation which sees an opportunity to buy up a number of smaller local wineries and bring “new techniques and modern marketing” to the area. It isn’t long before suspicious deaths associated with the fire and the Bondino empire strenuously test Bruno’s detective skills. The deaths also provoke unwanted media attention for the town which just wants to mourn its losses at a traditional bonfire wake.

This time as the chief’s cases heat up, the ambitious Police Nationale inspector, Isabelle Perrault, whom Bruno first encountered in Bruno, Chief of Police, and who became his lover, appears fleetingly and not so much for professional reasons. But Bruno doesn’t see a sustainable future for them because she is seldom in Saint-Denis and he is seldom away from it. He wants more than a stolen night here or there and had thought they’d broken up. Apparently Isabelle can content herself with occasional passion and requires more explicit signals from gallant Bruno if their relationship is to truly end. During her long absences however, Bruno has begun to relish the company of a British ex-pat who loves to ride horses and “who seem[s] content to give him all the time in the world.” Volume three of this series may find Bruno in a love triangle and having to choose between the ladies…or — ahem — maybe not choosing between the ladies?

Frequently sequels aren’t quite as strong as their predecessors. The Dark Vineyard, I would opine, follows this pattern. Don’t misunderstand. The Dark Vineyard provides another window into French small-town life, permitting the reader to tag along with Bruno to a grape-crushing gathering, to additional patriotic parades down the main street, to the merchants trying to make a living, and to the winemakers (organic and not) who rely more on their experience than on science and innovation to bottle fragrant and full-flavored juice of the vine. Walker cites Robert Louis Stevenson’s lovely thought, “Wine is bottled poetry,” and The Dark Vineyard seeks to convey that sentiment in its pages. Yet the customs and culture of a village in the South of France eclipse the caliber of the two prominent murder plots. There is little mystery about who committed one of the crimes; Bruno has that person fingered from the get-go. And another culprit is also fairly easy to spot. The “how” and the “why” of the deaths that Bruno investigates actually supply the book’s suspense, rather than the suspects’ identities. Also, although The Dark Vineyard possesses rich and intricate subject matter, it seems on the light side in comparison with its forerunner. It has some formulaic similarities (such as the Saint-Denis’ way of life being threatened by outside corporate pressure), and some repetition of routines, but that is because, after all, the rhythms of small town French life are repetitive, so while I mention this, it more as a notation than a criticism.

Walker does create an interesting ironic reversal vis-a-vis Bruno who, in the first book arguably made himself judge, jury, and absolver when due process, the civil law system, and duty (but not mercy and cosmic justice?) demanded a different action. Chief Bruno knows the human heart and mind is capable of all sorts of skullduggery; why shouldn’t he have latitude to deal with cases where the suspect seems obvious and where genuine justice can’t be won? This time fate and higher legal authorities dispense their own compromised “justice,” frustrating him. Bruno feels a sense of powerlessness when he understands that despite his ability to identify perpetrators, justice will be only partial.

Anyone who read Bruno, Chief of Police, will surely luxuriate in this second visit with the denizens of Saint-Denis. Anyone who reads The Dark Vineyard without initially being aware of the earlier volume (or just skipping it) will also almost surely be impressed because this is a superior (just not perfect) addition to the cozy mystery genre. It would be very hard to top the original story, but we would be poorer had Walker stopped after Bruno, Chief of Police.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 18 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf; 1 edition (July 27, 2010)
REVIEWER: Kirstin Merrihew
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

Bruno, Chief of Police


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December 29, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: France, Sleuths Series

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