Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Dark Vineyard

Before getting to The Dark Vineyard, I can report that I finished Bamboo and Blood while on vacation, and am no more clear on what actually happened in the story than before I started reading it.  But it did provide a frisson of faux-insider knowledge this week, when North Korea announced that it was suspending its nuclear development, and that the US was providing a food package in return.

Martin Walker's Inspector Bruno series are most decidedly NOT obscure, but they are like a lovely nap for my brain in the middle of a dull New England winter.  Sure, there is a crime to solve in the picturesque hamlet of Saint-Denis, and sometimes it is a pretty nasty one.  And this being France, there are strong emotions, and maybe even some political extremists (skinheads!  ecolos!)involved.  But that doesn't get in the way of one's enjoyment of this idyllic sun-drenched, fine-feasted, fully francaise setting, which wraps the reader in a glorious post-prandial langour even if all you had for dinner was spicy snow-pea and tofu stirfry.  Solving the crime, and keeping the paix and the patriotisme will all happen in good time, perhaps even while we are enjoying all that the Dordogne has to offer - local wine and cheeses made by les caractères français rurales, not to mention foie gras, fresh game, and vin de noix whatever that even is. 

The Dark Vineyard is the second in Walker's series, featuring Benoit "Bruno" Courreges, local policier (not to be confused with the gendarmerie; like most European countries there are multiple levels of policing).  Bruno knows everyone in the town, partly due to his work, but also because he has thrown himself into his community:  he builds his own house with help from local suppliers, is a devoted member of the local hunting club, plays and coaches rugby, teaches tennis, and as policeman, is responsible for general security of the town although he generally plays good cop to any outside security agency's bad cop.  The character profiles are nicely drawn - Walker's description of the old but proud WWII veterans, partisans all but partisan today (one a Gaulliste, one a Communist, never shall they see eye-to-eye even if they have march side-by-side in every parade the town has) is charming.  Everyone has a somewhat proscribed role to play, from Pamela the Mad Englishwoman to Monsieur le Maire.  Here's Bruno arriving at the market:

"For Bruno, it was a gathering of friends.  Stephane was there with his milk and cheeses and yogurts with Dominique to help out at the stall, alongside.  Raoul the wine merchant and Yves with his fruit and vegetables.  The fishmonger and charcutier were squabbling over which of them got the prime location at the corner of the bridge.  Marie with her ducks and eggs and magrets was in her usual place under the arches and close to the cafe, the dubiously legal fat goose livers tucked discreetly out of sight in a cool box.  Jeanne, plumper than ever and with her leather cash bag dangling from her shoulder, passed through the stalls exchanging kisses and gossip as she took the modest fees the town charged the merchants.
The air was fresh and the sun warm but not oppressive.  Fauquet had not bothered to open the sun umbrellas over his outdoor tables, where people were lingering over their croissants and newspapers.  Light glinted on the ripples where the river shallows danced over the pebbles on the near shore.  Far downstream, a group of pony-trekkers waited patiently as their steeds drank their fill while a flotilla of ducks paddled by.  The golden stone of the old bridge and the local buildings glowed warmly in the mid-morning light.  The clock on the mairie read 10 a.m., and the bells of the church in the rue de Paris began to strike."  (Walker, The Dark Vineyard, p. 102)

Aaaaah. It is pretty clear that Walker is living la vie Peter Mayle.

This particular story involves winemaking local and industrial, as a global wine conglomerate is interested in buying up much of the valley to get a foothold in the European wine world.  They'll bring jobs to the economically eroding area, but they'll also bring plonk, and that's unacceptable to some.  Throw in a hot young Quebecois wine student, a heavy-drinking scion of a wine family, some loyal hunting dogs, and a truffled omelette, and you've got a deeply satisfying read.

(Apologies for the formatting - if anyone knows how to get accents in this editor, please let me know!)

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