Monday, August 23, 2010

The Dark Vineyard

The charm is still there in Martin Walker's second French country cozy with Bruno, chief of police in a small Dordogne town. Walker wisely avoids a second dip into the dark history of French collaboration with the Nazis and constructs a new plot around very contemporary concerns about ecology, genetically modified crops and industrial production wine.

But the first rule of a murder mystery is to have a murder. The initial crime here is arson, so the suspense is hardly sufficient (not even Bruno seems to really care who set the fire) to help the reader along in the slowly developing plot. Walker's sparkling writing and his vivid descriptions of the quality of life in the Dordogne are sufficient for a Francophile, but the appeal of the series might be limited if it remains too low-key.

In the end a couple of deaths (maybe murder, maybe not) and the brutal killing of an aged dog add a little juice to the narrative.

One of the highlights is the meal Bruno prepares for some friends, featuring a game bird shot by Bruno, which Walker stubbornly and oddly refuses to translate (Wikipedia tells me becasse is woodcock). It's hard to imagine that English and American women would follow the example of the French men and actually slurp down the stomach and crunch the bird's skull as part of the meal, no matter how enamored they may be with lovable old Bruno, but it does give a sense of France's gustatory zeal.

The resolution is all a bit anti-climactic, perhaps because there's very little true villainy. The French characters are all just a bit too nice in the end -- Walker, unlike Peter Mayle, seems unwilling to offend his friends back in the Dordogne. But if you liked the first book, this one goes down easy, too.

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