Mysteries with a French Twist
I’ve been thinking about the appeal of Louise Penny’s Armande Gamache mysteries, and one thing I’ve come up with is actually not all that original: These books are compelling because they provide a sense of comfort and a sense of threat, all wrapped up into one package. You know that all Inspector Gamache longs for is to be at home in the beautiful village of Three Pines with his beloved wife and dog, but evil doings keep drawing him away. As a reader you experience both the thrill of danger and the longing for a safe place that is both a refuge from danger and home.
That sense of place is an essential element in a lot of mysteries, and mysteries are a particularly good way to experience place from the comfort of your easy chair. So, in honor of Inspector Gamache’s home ground of Quebec, I am casting my net into the French speaking world to come up with some mysteries set in lands where French is the dominant language.
First up is Martin Walker’s “Bruno, Chief of Police” series. These novels are set in the Dordogne region of central France, and if we had any sense we would put down our pens and leave for that place right now. Walker, who has a summer home in this area, makes it sound so appealing! But we can’t, so let’s talk about these books. Walker is actually an international journalist; he has reported, edited and opined for both the Guardian and United Press International. He has created the fictional town of St. Denis, “a village of lush green oak and walnut trees and meadows, golden stone buildings, red tiled rooftops, and wrought-iron railings hung with washing, where no building is less than 200 years old,” writes Walker.
But, like Penny, Walker uses an idyllic backdrop as a contrast to stories that highlight dark currents in society. In the first book, “Bruno, Chief of Police,” a war hero from Algeria is murdered in a brutal and apparently racist attack. But something else may be afoot, forces rooted in France’s dark history during World War II. It’s up to Benoit ‘Bruno’ Courreges, the town’s only policeman, to figure it out.
Bruno is a former soldier who was wounded on a peacekeeping mission in the Balkans, but he can never remember to carry his gun. He is also a gourmet cook. One writer called these books “Peter Mayle-meets-Alexander McCall Smith.”
Another book that’s set in a region of France I would love to see more of is “Treachery in Bordeaux” by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noel Balen. These books feature Benjamin Cooker, a respected vintner and occasional wine critic, and his assistant, Virgile Lanssien. In the first book a wine estate owner calls Benjamin for help, not because of a murder, but because several barrels of one of his rare and coveted wines has been sabotaged. Off we go, and the reader learns a lot about the rarified world of the wine business. Unlike Walker, an Englishman who lives part-time in France and who writes in English, this book has been translated from the French.
Next up, we’re going to fly to Paris, to visit Fred Vargas’ eerie and entertaining Commissaire Adamsberg series. I have mentioned these before, but I just can’t help repeating myself on this one, both because the author and the series are so interesting. Fred Vargas is actually a woman named Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau, a French historian and archeologist who says she started writing police thrillers as a way to relax from her day job.
These books are very brainy; they’re as much psychological studies as crime fiction. The main character is Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, a Paris police chief who seems to have missed the style part of the French gene pool – he is a terrible slouch. His methods can only be described as, well, one writer described them as Zen, which comes as close as any other description I can think of. For much of these books, he appears to be doing nothing except thinking, enraging his superiors and mystifying his troops, who nevertheless remain steadfastly loyal to him. Generally their loyalty is rewarded – thus far, Adamsberg has always figured things out. Start this series with 1991’s “The Chalk Circle Man.” I need to say that these books are a bit more gruesome than some of the more sedate mystery series – one of the books, “An Uncertain Place” like “The Bones of Paris,” also features someone with an unhealthy obsession with body parts. Well, it is crime, after all….
Also set in Paris, “The Paris Architect” by Charles Belfoure has a very intriguing premise. It’s the story of an architect in occupied Paris during World War II, who is commissioned by a wealthy client to build hiding places for Jews who otherwise would be sent off to concentration camps. The tension mounts as Lucien, who is also designing a factory that will turn out armaments for the German Reich, becomes more and more entangled in the deceptions necessary to maintain his secrecy and his safety. He’s worried about the Gestapo, and he’s worried about the Resistance, who keep telling him what will happen to Nazi collaborators after the war. Lucien’s story brings up questions of bravery and free will and the most personal one – what would you do in such a predicament? Real life connection: Belfoure’s Polish mother benefitted from similar kindnesses during the war.
Finally – I came across a book that I had never heard of, but which I plan to track down because it sounds so compelling. “Death from the Woods” by Brigitte Aubert, translated by David L. Koral, received raves when it first came out in France in the late 1990s. The main character is not just a quadriplegic, but also blind and mute. Elise Andrioli, a woman in her 30s, is horribly injured in Belfast in a car bomb that kills her boyfriend and five other people. Back in Paris, she is confined to a wheelchair, but she can still hear and think, and her thoughts are both insightful and astute.
Elise is befriended by a strange little girl called Virginie who keeps whispering terrifying things about someone she calls “Death from the Woods.” Elise learns the details of a series of child murders, one of which was Virginie’s older half-brother. When it becomes clear that Virginie knows who the killer is, the reader is plunged into Elise’s attempts to both solve the crime and communicate what she knows with others, as some of her abilities stunted by the bombing start to come back. This plot reminds me of that terrifying movie of the 1960s, “Wait Until Dark” with Audrey Hepburn, about a blind woman who is being stalked by a killer. I could barely watch that movie, so I am not sure whether “Death From the Woods”