Thursday, September 2, 2010

Martin Walker digs up forgotten memories in a French village.

I spent some time this past summer in the central French countryside, and this series caught my eye when I saw where it was set. Now that I have read the first of the three Bruno novels, I know I will move on through the series.

Bruno, Chief of Police

Martin Walker, a foreign affairs journalist, is well-published as a non-fiction writer. His first foray into novel-writing is quite impressive, and Bruno, Chief of Police (288 pages, Vintage, $14.95) is a well-written and engaging novel that more than bodes well for the series.

Bruno Courréges, a local policeman in St. Dénis, in the Périgord (Dordogne) region of Southern France, enjoys life thoroughly. Tucked away in his sunny corner of France, he feels devoted to the village, its people, and its struggle to stay true to its ease and openness.

Recent events when the novel opens, especially the ritualistic murder of an elderly Arab-French patriot, exacerbates tensions already high over questions of immigration and the supposed difficulty of accommodating an increasing population of Arabs from North Africa. Bruno prides himself and his village on its even-handedness in these matters—the Arab members of the community are fully accepted—but he worries that the brutal murder—a Nazi swastika was carved into the man’s chest—will end in violence and hatreds.

He does his best to keep a lid on things, even when superiors from Paris come in to run the murder investigation. All the will in the world cannot keep these matters out of the public eye, and television reports fan the flame of racial tension. When two teenagers from the Front National are taken in for questioning, both from prominent local families, the hostilities break through the surface and Bruno has quite a challenge on his hands.

Nevertheless, he takes things coolly, and goes about his business with aplomb. Always ready to take a glass with his friends—like the mayor and colleagues in the police and fire brigade. He also meets some women. There are two fascinating and eccentric English women, who live in the town and run a local guesthouse. They enjoy his company, wine and dine him, and they also aid him with some important research that helps him solve the case. Another woman, Isabelle, one of the representatives of the National Police in charge of the case, turns out to be a good fighter—she saves Bruno when he is about the become the victim of mob violence—and a seductive lover—she makes some of the tensions of the case less harrowing for our hero.

As it turns out, the motivation of the murder is not at all what it had seemed, and the young kids turn out to have nothing to do with it. Instead, the crime takes Bruno and his colleagues back into the dark years of the Second World War. Some of the things that happened to the French resistance during the occupation turn out to have immediate impact on the case in question.

This is an elegant novel, with a surprising twist in the ending. Bruno is a likable character and his friends all have memorable personalities. I look forward to reading about their further exploits.

Martin Walker

Get a copy of Bruno, Chief of Police at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

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