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Monday 12 August 2013
‘Dark Vineyard’ by Martin Walker
Crime fiction set in other parts of Europe has never been my favourite sub-genre, so I approached Martin Walker’s Dark Vineyard with a certain amount of trepidation, especially since the background is the kind of rural community where shoplifting is enough of a crime to make headlines, and disbelief has to be suspended a very long way if murder is on the agenda.
It just goes to show low expectations sometimes pay off; I’ve rarely been more pleasantly surprised. Walker doesn’t just sidestep the Midsomer Murders four-bodies-per-episode trap; he gives it such a wide berth that the only real murder victim isn’t even human. But the novel still has a policeman at its centre, and certainly qualifies as crime fiction.
Bruno Courrèges, chief and indeed only officer of the law of St Denis, a small town in the Dordogne, knows and loves his community and wants nothing more than to protect it from the ravages of vandalizing eco-warriors and American wine-growers with deep pockets, few scruples and an accountants’ approach to their product. The author clearly shares Bruno’s love for the area, and the book is almost as much travelogue as crime novel, at least for the kind of traveller for who viewing the scenery is only the beginning. The community, its terrain, inhabitants, food, wine and ambience lie at the centre of the narrative and draw the reader in from the outset.
The storyline doesn’t lack suspects, bodies, or even suspicious death; but the true ‘victim’ is the way of life which is under threat, first from an arsonist whose attack threatens a major source of jobs and livelihood for the town, and then from the underhand tactics of the Americans.
Unlike the grittier city-based policiers of Fred Vargas, probably the French crime writer best known to British readers, Dark Vineyard moves at a leisurely pace which mirrors the way of life it portrays. There’s even an element of romance; well, it is France, after all. Bruno is an engaging protagonist, and the town is well populated with quirky characters. Think Heartbeat, relocated to south-west France, and updated to include computers, mobile phones and a hint of terrorism in the background.
If there is a flaw, it’s that there’s a certain amount of assumption that the reader will be familiar with the background from the first book in the series; this is the second. I’ll be looking for the first, and look forward to re-acquainting myself with the denizens and lifestyle of St Denis.
Reviewer: Lynne PatrickMartin Walker was educated at Balliol College, Oxford and Harvard. In twenty-five years with the Guardian, he served as Bureau Chief in Moscow and, in the US, as European Editor. In addition to his prize-winning journalism, he wrote and presented the BBC series Martin Walker’s Russia and Clintonomics. Martin has written several acclaimed works of non-fiction, including The Cold War: A History. His most recent novel is Black Diamond. He lives in Washington and spends his summers in his house in the Dordogne. Many of his novels feature the old-school chief of police, Captain Bruno. You can visit Bruno’s website at brunochiefofpolice.com
Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning.
She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.