The Crowded Grave by Martin Walker
There are several different strategies when it comes to writing a police procedural with thrillerish overtones but, for these immediate purposes, we only need to distinguish two broad approaches. Both involve indomitable heroes with military or espionage backgrounds. We see their lives at peace and then they are plunged into excitement. In the first type, there’s a major incident of some kind which triggers our hero’s involvement. This shakes up the usually dormant community in which he lives (very rarely do we have a heroine). These poor souls have never seen anything like this since. . . All the citizens run around in shock, thinking the sky is falling, and our hero has to spot who’s only pretending to be surprised, corner the villain and then engage in a violent confrontation involving gunfire with optional explosions. In a sense, this gives the featured crime(s) an importance equal to that of the hero. There will be intricate plot elements to unravel involving cross-border terrorists and criminals. Perhaps history will become relevant as we stretch back in time to the wars and militant campaigns of the last generation. However, in all this, the actual geographical context and the characters who populate it are merely ciphers. All action scenes require a place, preferably exotic. People are required as pawns to move around on the chessboard. Many will be sacrificed although some of the major figures may also fall. But they are all rather anonymous, often cardboard stereotypes for whom we feel little or nothing.
The alternate approach is the mirror image except where it comes to the place and the people. There will be an initial event. In The Crowded Grave by Martin Walker (Knopf, 2012) — the fourth in a series featuring Bruno, the Chief of Police — chaos and confusion is caused by the unexpected presence of ducks on the road. Through this incident, we’re introduced to the farming community and begin the slow journey around this “tranquil” community as it becomes the centre of attention. A team of archaeologists has been digging in the area and they make what may be a major find (and, incidentally, dig up a more modern body which seems to have been the victim of an execution by shooting). The world press turns its attention to questions of prehistoric bones and their significance while our hero gets caught up in L’affaire bouillon as another duck farmer’s wife is arrested for making soup, surprisingly with ducks — the Marx Brothers would have approved. As you can see the level of criminal outrages is escalating rapidly. And then there’s the Clochemerle incident in which the new Magistrate is humiliated by the inadvertent spraying of faecal matter following a farmers’ demonstration of outrage at the persecution of one of their own.
Taking a step back, we need to look more carefully at the man at the centre of all this excitement. He’s Benoît “Bruno” Courrèges, a former soldier who has adapted to the slow rhythms of country life. Adjusting the affairs of the community without resorting to anything so crude as an arrest, he stands guard over Saint-Denis — a fictional village in the Dordogne region of France. He’s a pillar of the community, hunting with some of the men, training the local rugby team and occasionally teaching tennis, cooking and exchanging homemade delicacies with all his friends — remember to sing the Marseillaise to ensure frying the ubiquitous foie gras and steaks is timed to perfection. To give our hero something to get his teeth into (apart from the good food, of course), the French and Spanish governments pick this quiet backwater as the site of a meeting to agree new measures for dealing with Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA). The Basque region is close by with nationalists and separatists known to lurk in France and cross over the border when an operation is planned. This high-level Ministerial contact could well attract the attention of predatory ETA members. . . and there’s still the unexplained body — although it’s been in the ground for more than twenty years, it could be someone killed during the so-called Dirty War when a paramilitary Spanish nationalist group assassinated known or suspected terrorists. Now that you come to think of it, this could all escalate into one of these exciting stories with terrorist bombs, shootings, sword fights (why not, it’s set in France which is famous for the Musketeers), and chases. Perhaps our hero could prove himself good in bed and generally step up his game when more than ducks are at stake. Not forgetting, of course, the vital national importance of ducks. The economic contribution of foie gras to France’s wellbeing cannot be overstated and anything threatening that would be treated as potentially treasonous. But with potential terrorists in the area, the ducks must briefly take second place as our hero defends the lives of a couple of Ministers. Then he can get back to the more important stuff of opening a bottle of wine and mucking out the horses.
Summing this up, The Crowded Grave is a bucolic and gastronomic excursion into one of my favourite parts of France. Incidentally, it deals with serious crimes and exposes the political infighting between the different branches of the law enforcement service. But it’s worth reading just for the chance of savouring the atmosphere of the place and meeting some truly memorable people.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.