Nightmare in Burgundy by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen
Nightmare in Burgundy by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen (Le French Book, 2014) is the third in the The Winemaker Detective Series, originally titled Cauchemar dans les Côtes-de-Nuit and translated by Sally Pane. Well, here we go again with Benjamin Cooker receiving one of the more prestigious awards in French Gastronomy. He’s to be enrolled in the ranks of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin. This brotherhood may be focused on the wines and cuisine of Burgundy, but its reputation for applying the highest possible standards has given membership a high value. This despite the somewhat eccentric initiation ceremony all new members must endure for the privilege of belonging. So in between eating and drinking socially, and drinking professionally at the formal tasting sessions at Château du Clos de Vougeot, we encounter our heroic Wine Guide writer finding the local landscape besmirched by uncharacteristically literate graffiti. Instead of the more usual crudités, this artist is spray-painting Latin. When our hero puts on his detective hat out of curiosity, his translation is given good marks and the source is identified as Psalm 102.
Perhaps this would all have remained idle curiosity but, the following night, one of the local hunters who only ever permits Banksy to redecorate the local walls, takes his shotgun to bed with him. When he hears noises early in the morning, he leans out of his bedroom window and sees two dark figure apparently about to add new sentences to a nearby wall. Despite being drunk, he fires both barrels in sequence and brings both figures down. This is not completely approved vigilanteism in Burgundy and the man is arrested. The boys do not survive. As if this was not enough to stimulate our detective into life, there’s then a distinctly weird, if not supernatural, occurrence in which an old lady awakes to find her bed covered in snow. Allowing for this being winter with some snow on the ground outside, there’s no obvious explanation for how the white stuff came to be inside. Later on, there’s another death.
The problem when writing novella length mysteries is how to strike the right balance between complexity of plot and the number of words available to deliver it. Get the balance wrong and the mystery element is either over before you know it or, like the corpse too tall to fit in the coffin, cut down to fit. Fortunately, Nightmare in Burgundy satisfies the Goldilocks test and comes out “just right”. More interestingly, it also flirts with genre boundaries while managing to develop the character arcs for both Cooker and his assistant Virgile. The whole comes together because the mystery grows naturally out of the surrounding circumstances. It tickles the curiosity bump, plays with expectations and then delivers a pleasingly constructed solution. It’s well worth picking up!
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.