Monday, July 17, 2017

Review: "The Dark Vineyard," Martin Walker

 By Paul Carrier

If there’s another France-based mystery in which the protagonist and other major characters stomp freshly-picked grapes in a vineyard’s giant vat, I’ve yet to come across it.

That’s one of the more memorable scenes in The Dark Vineyard, the second novel in a series by Martin Walker set in Saint Denis, a fictional village in the Périgord region. The Dark Vineyard came on the heels of Bruno, Chief of Police, the series opener, and was followed by several novels that culminated (so far) in The Templars' Last Secret, which was released this year.

Saint Denis is where Benoit Courrèges, known to one and all as Bruno, earns his keep as the town’s lone policeman. It is, for the most part, a quiet and predictable life, except for the occasional suspicious death. Or, in the case of The Dark Vineyard, two. A former soldier, the 39-year-old Bruno loves to hunt, cook and coach local kids in rugby and tennis, all while dating assorted independent-minded women in search of someone with whom to settle down.

The outside world intrudes when Fernando Bondino of Bondino Wines in California solicits the mayor’s help in laying the groundwork for a major winery in Saint Denis. Bondin0 plans to quietly buy up large tracts of underpriced land, but the elderly Monsieur Cresseil and his adopted adult son Max Augereau make it clear they have no intention of selling.

As that conflict unfolds, arson destroys plants and a shed at a secretive agricultural research station in Saint Denis that is experimenting with genetically-modified crops, with the French government’s backing. Bruno fears that environmental activists were involved, possibly including Augereau, who hopes to produce organic wines and vehemently opposes GMOs.

Cresseil and his son are later found dead at Cresseil’s farm, and suspicion centers on Bondino, who had been vying with Augereau for the affections of Jacqueline Duplessis, a flirtatious visiting wine expert from Québec.

Saint Denis itself is a central character in The Dark Vineyard, as Walker explores its charms and idiosyncrasies.

A truffle omelet that Bruno whips up for visiting guests sounds positively mouth-watering. A French hunting dog of the old Porcelaine breed figures in the plot. (Bruno has a dog of his own, a basset hound nicknamed Gigi.) And when Bruno and his on-again off-again girlfriend Isabelle Perrault arrive at the grape-stomping party and descend into the vat, a colorful description ensues.

Bruno “felt around with a foot, looking for a whole bunch for the tactile pleasure of treading on it and feeling it burst through his toes before starting the steady tramping motion that was the approved style.” He and Perrault find themselves “exchanging kisses and the sweet words of lovers as they tramped up and down like a pair of old soldiers amid the rich and heady scent of the grapes.”

And then there is Bruno himself: iconoclastic, conscientious, and above all else, fiercely devoted to small-town life. When his beloved Perrault lands a high-level police job in Paris, Bruno refuses to follow her, even though he’s so well-respected that he could get a prestigious position there as well, if he wanted to.

Bruno is his own man, with his own ideas about life and work. When he offers the use of his office computer to a friend whose laptop has been seized for clues and gives the man his password, an out-of-town cop who witnesses the exchange tells Bruno he’s "a strange kind of policeman." It’s a good thing police recruits were not on hand to witness such odd, cozy behavior, the by-the-book detective tells Bruno, because it would confuse them.

“Maybe it’s exactly what they need,” Bruno replies. “It would do them all good to spend a year as a village policeman.”

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