Thursday, September 16, 2010

Martin Walker’s French village had to confront the 21st century.

I enjoyed the first novel in this Bruno series, and I was pleased to see that Martin returned to the same location for the second.

The Dark Vineyard

The Dark Vineyard (320 pages, Knopf, $23.95) immediately challenges the bright hopefulness and country tranquility of Bruno, Chief of Police with the gloominess of eco-terrorism and the horrors of globalization. Globalization seems horrible to Bruno when a big California wine company seems ready to purchase vast tracks of the Périgord and introduce modern methods of wine production.

Bruno spends his time lamenting the loss of the old methods, represented by wine-making parties where everyone gets in the vat and crushes grapes with his or her feet. Walker presents these traditional events with deep affection; and when they are threatened, Bruno wonders if the life he loves can ever survive.

The wine conglomeration seems to threaten from without, but meanwhile some eco-terrorists are burning crops and threatening the peacefulness of the village in other ways. It seems that some fields, some vast tracts just outside the village, are given over to a government project exploring genetic modification of some crops. This has been a big secret, and even Bruno the Chief of Police did not know about the project. But when those fields are set ablaze, it becomes a reason for national investigators to descend on Bruno’s little town of San Denis.

One of the key suspects, a good looking young man called Max, is a friend of Bruno’s and someone he coached on the local rugby team. Bruno does not want to push the investigation in Max’s direction, but there seems to be little choice as the big guns from Paris are calling the shots.

Imagine Bruno’s chagrin, then, when the young French boy is found dead. His body is discovered, as it turns out, in a vat of fermenting grapes, and we are told that the high carbon dioxide content in such a location can indeed be fatal. But Max also has some gashes on his head that suggest something more is going on. Not only that: an older man, the friend of Max who was making the wine, lies dead at the bottom of a step ladder near the vat, all sorts of complications emerge.

As Bruno goes about his attempts to keep matters local and less lurid than the Parisian journalists would like, he also keeps up with his friends, celebrates local events, and dines on the choicest local fare. His friend from the earlier novel, the English horsewoman Pamela, looms larger here, as a friend and possibly more. And another woman, a Canadian, who seems to have some knowledge of wine herself, has come to town and has become an intriguing presence for everyone. Before his death, Max was dating her, and she also seems involved with the wine entrepreneur who has come to town to buy up vineyards.

All these strands come together in a nicely paced detective narrative. Walker makes it pleasant because of the rich descriptions of the local context and because of his feeling for the way of life that flourishes in this French heartland.

Martin Walker

The Dark Vineyard is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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