When I published my first post around crime fiction and food, way back at the end of last year, I asked for any suggestions for other writers that I may have missed. The one name that came up the most, about 4 or 5 times, was that of Martin Walker and his fictional detective Bruno Courreges, chief of police in the small, fictional town of St. Denis, in the Dordogne region of France.
*If you haven’t read this series there are one or two spoilers during the course of this post.
I started this series from book one and have worked my way through to all but the two most recent books in the series, and they are on hold at the library. I found Bruno an engaging character right from the start. His interest in protecting the way of life of the people in the town of St. Denis, as the EU regulations seek to destroy their way of life. He also has a great deal of compassion in his dealings with the people. He often overlooks, or helps correct, minor violations that can cause the perpetrators outsized trouble,and when ever possible finds creative ways to help out the victims of crime, along with helping out those who have fallen on hard times.
Bruno has fallen in love with this region of France, and always resists any attempts to move him out of the region. He will do this even if it means turning down promotions and giving others credit for the work he has done, and crimes he has solved.
In many of these activities he is assisted by his mentor, the mayor, Gerard Mangin, a career politician of great skill, who has put those skills to use in keeping his town’s people in relative good fortune, even when nationally economic hard times. Like Bruno, he’ll bend the rules when it is to the benefit of his town, and it’s way of life.
This is not to suggest that he, or Bruno, simply break any rules they don’t like. Rather, they make sure the spirit and not just the letter of the law is invoked. As well, they believe that ensuring justice is done is part of law enforcement.
Bruno, is a former member of the combat engineers of the French Military, serving with distinction in Sarajevo. As a result of this he has also built up a strong aversion to guns. This service background is one of the features of the series I like. As someone living in Canada, my view of such conflicts is often limited to Canadian, or thanks, or not, to Hollywood, the American few. The Bruno series brings an interesting, European, view to not only that conflict, but also WWII, African Colonial Wars, and modern terror campaigns. Walker has steeped himself in the history of the region, and this shines through in the novels.
Being a small town, St. Denis is a place with long memories, and revenge is often a theme in the stories. One of Bruno’s jobs is to keep these old quarrels from boiling over, when he is not being seconded into cases of national significance.
Bruno was raised as an orphan, and is looking t settle down and start a family of his own. This desire creates conflicts in his relationships with the women in his life particularly with Isabelle and Pamela, the two women he seems torn between. Both are strong, intelligent, and independent women who will not place their dreams and ambitions into a secondary place behind a relationship.
The series in general has as number of other strong, female characters, who nurture and challenge Bruno in his practice and attitudes. there is Fabiola the town doctor, and Florence one of the teachers at the school, Annette the prosecutor, and several other women who weave in and out of the stories.
The women are easily the equal of the male characters that populate the stories, even though those characters such as local aristocrat the Baron, JJ of the Gendarmerie, and other more shadowy figures in the government and military, such as the Brigadier, and in later books Jack Crimson.
The other major character in the stories is Balzac, Bruno’s second bassett hound. A friendly and loving dog, Balzac often trots along with Bruno on his cases. His affectionate nature opens many doors and hearts that otherwise might be closed to Chief of Police.
Any long series is made better by a strong supporting cast. As much as the people and animals in the stories are important, the Dordogne region itself is an important character. This is an area of beautiful landscape, fantastic chateaus, ancient cave paintings, and great vineyards. Although St. Denis itself is fictitious, the landscape that Walker describes is very real. On top of all these attractions, there is the food and wine, another important character in the Bruno series.
Among the many foods that the Dordogne is known for is Foie Gras. The delicacy made from the liver of geese who have been force fed to fatten up their liver. The controversy around foie gras shows up in more than one novel. Truffles are another delicacy that are found in the area. The region also produces some very good wines, that often fly under the radar when it comes to consumer preference around the world.
In the books however, food and wine serve as much as the glue which binds the community together, as it does a source of nutrition. A love of good food is one of the qualities that is shared by all of the major characters in the series.
Bruno being a gourmand, there are naturally descriptions of fine meals eaten in top notch restaurants, but it’s the sometimes humble meals around Bruno’s or Pamela’s dining room tables that are the most appealing.
Here we see most clearly why Bruno never wants to leave the region. Most of what he needs to prepare a satisfying meal is either in his garden, at the town market, or available from one of the farmer’s whose well-being he is called to protect. Here, among the grand feasts are sprinkled meals of consisting of leftovers, or what are small scale potlucks, where each person brings a little something. Bruno never seems more at ease with himself and his life than when he is in the kitchen.
Often the meals are rushed, as the time constraints of dealing with security threats don’t allow for long, pleasurable periods at the table. Such threats are never a reason for ignoring good food. Better to eat a little good food than to eat a lot of bad food.
Food also provides a little bit of comic relief, as the menu at the local restaurant changes depending on which foreign girlfriend has recently caught the owner’s attention on one of his trips abroad.
Food, sex, and romance play a major role in the stories. These are all pleasures of the body, that Bruno and the other characters enjoy. In many cases involving Bruno, and Isabelle or Pamela. the meals seems to serve as extended foreplay.
The Bruno series is one of the best series I’ve come across in a long time. Beyond the characters, location and meals, one other thing I really like about this series is none of the books is overly long, most clocking in between 350-400 pages. Walker has done a good job of not developing the habit of making each book longer than the last. One reason I’ve quit reading Elizabeth George is that each novel seems as long as War and Peace,
There are, as in any series, a couple of things in the Bruno series that bother me somewhat and take away from my complete enjoyment. The first the violence. One expects violence in a series of murder stories, but for a policeman who doesn’t like to carry his gun, I found the increasing level of violence and weaponry in the books disheartening.
The other thing is the timeline. In one of the later books Bruno’s relationship with Pamela is described as having been a year in it’s length. I find this makes some aspects of the series difficult. Walker is always writing about Bruno’s desire to settle down, but if the series has only covered a year, it makes that desire seem less important than it should be. Plus, Bruno has suffered many serious injuries over the course of the series. One would think with that many injuries in the space of year, Bruno would be permanently confined to a hospital bed.
On the whole, though, these are minor quibbles. The Bruno books are well-plotted, the characters are well drawn, and they fill both with the desire to eat, and to visit the Dordogne. I will definitely be reading any new Bruno novel that comes out.