Deadly Tasting by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen
Deadly Tasting by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen (Le French Book, 2014) (translated by Sally Pane) is the fourth in the The Winemaker Detective Series. This time our expert in wine is taken in hand, first by his wife who’s insistent he loses some weight, and then by Barbaroux, his local police inspector, who has a crime scene mystery for him. The first act of submission is going to require Benjamin Cooker temporarily to sacrifice his bon vivant lifestyle and substitute one of these boiled cabbage diets the overweight inflict on themselves when they want to feel virtuous in their quest to shed some weight (even his loyal assistant Virgile is in on the conspiracy to fight the flab). The second takes our amateur detective into a kitchen where an old man has been murdered (the murder deters him from thinking about food). In one corner is a table set up with a wine bottle and twelve glasses. One of the glasses has what the inspector assures him is unadultered wine (do we trust the local CSI and their rapid tox-screen?). All our expert has to do is identify it. Remarkably he offers a region, label and approximate age even though he claims never to have tasted it before. It’s a Pétrus from Pomerol and about sixty years old. Then a few hours later, a second old man is discovered dead. This time, two of the twelve wine glasses have been filled with this rare wine.
It’s not so much the financial value of the wine that’s intriguing — the earlier wines are not so expensive by contemporary standards — it’s the reason for the murderer choosing this particular vintage which, on tasting, is not outstanding. The fact two glasses have been filled at this murder scene suggests the killer intends ten more victims. This is a challenge to the powers of formal and amateur law enforcement. Can our hero work out the symbolism of the wine and catch the killer before too many more crimes are committed? A shared tasting with another wine expert confirms the vintage is not particularly good and probably dates from 1943 or thereabouts, i.e. it’s a wine produced during the occupation. When a grave is desecrated, it confirms a motive buried (pun intended) in the past.
Because of my familiarity with France, this was a fairly predictable story. The only question was who was responsible. There’s a slightly unexpected element at the end but, for this most part, this is a by-the-numbers plot based on the residual “bad feelings” over the atrocities committed under the Vichy Government. Some of the detail about the treatment of the winemakers during the occupation was new to me and illuminating, but once we get past the set-up, the overall effect is not very exciting. That said, the themes explored in stories like this remain culturally significant in France itself. Indeed, there’s considerable shorthand involved when discussing the forced labour, the treatment of the Jews, and what happened after liberation. So, at this length, such stories are successful in French terms because it’s easy to read between the lines and infer the background. But I worry whether “foreigners” coming relatively cold to this part of French history, will understand the passions it continues to raise. A straight translation such as this leaves the plot a little bare. Curiously, several books by both British and American authors have been published on this theme during the last five years and they are, to my mind, more successful for “foreigners” to read because they take the time to lay the groundwork and explain some of the cultural pressures that remain effective and would motivate crimes like those described in this novella. As Deadly Tasting stands, I suspect it will appear a little superficial to those not aware of this part of French history. I’m also faintly suspicious of the title because there’s no suggestion any of the victims actually drank or were invited to taste the wine. Other than that, the novella is a reminder of the need to keep people on a crash diet distracted and motivated to get through to the end of the treatment.
For reviews of other books in the series, see:
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.