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Grand Cru Heist by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen

April 6, 2014 2 comments

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I’m returning to The Winemaker Detective Series with Grand Cru Heist by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen (Le French Book, 2013) translated by Anne Trager (again, I like the French title Pour qui sonne l’angélus i.e. “For whom the angelus tolls” as a reference to the phrase coined by John Donne and adopted by Ernest Hemingway). This begins with one of the more terrifying of urban possibilities. The driver, in this case Benjamin Cooker, has stopped at a set of red traffic lights. The door is not locked. He takes no notice as a man briefly appears by his window. Then before he can react, the door is open, there’s a knife at his throat and the car is gone. Later when he wakes in hospital, he discovers he’s been cut and quite severely beaten. Lucky to be alive, the hospital staff say. What makes the car-jacking all the worse is the loss of his notes. All his memories accumulated over the years, gone in a moment. While he’s waiting for his body and mind to heal, a hundred bottles of the 1989 Angélus premier grand cru classé are stolen. His wife, Elisabeth, and Virgile, his assistant, do their best to lift his spirits, but he decides to go away on his own for a little rehabilitation therapy in the Touraine region where there are many vineyards to visit.

Noël Balen (left) and Jean-Pierre Alaux (right)

Noël Balen (left) and Jean-Pierre Alaux (right)

He stays in an otherwise empty hotel as it prepares to close for the winter. It’s surprising to everyone when a couple appear as guests. It impresses Cooker that the Englishman, Morton, should be driving a Morgan, one of his favorite sports cars. It’s even better when the man proves to be a wine broker and a lover of good cigars. They enjoy a meal together. Then Cooker gets a call from the man who lost the Angélus wine. It seems someone has sent him a taunting letter. After eating, Morton discovers he’s been abandoned by the woman he was with, and drives off in his high-profile car. In short order, Cooker’s car is found in Germany, the body of a young woman turns up strangled, and the concierge at the hotel goes missing.

This is the second of these novellas I’ve read and the pattern now seems clear. In part the series is an excuse to talk about good wine and the good food that can accompany it. As the man behind France’s leading guide to wines, Cooker can go anywhere and knows everyone important there is to know. This gives him access to many secrets about wine and, of course, means he has the chance to act as an unofficial type of detective when, for example, some wine of a top vintage is stolen. In the first of the series, he supplied confidential services that cleared up an outbreak of Brettanomyces. This time we have thefts of wine and what proves to be a double murder. On balance, I find this less successful than the first. Whereas the first distracts us from the outbreak of disease by a little mystery surrounding some artwork, this has a full-scale double murder in view. So at novella length, the first sustains itself without running out of steam, whereas this introduces what would, in most series, be a plot amply filling a full length novel. But then has only a few pages in which to solve it. The result is little mystery because we don’t have the time and space to explore the circumstances and identify all possible suspects. All we get is a few plot pointers, some conversations, and a solution. To say this is perfunctory would be an understatement. It’s a shame because the plot itself is not without possibilities at length. Any mystery or thriller writer of competence could have filled this out with interesting details and red herrings until we arrive at the solution. This effort is hobbled from the outset by the artificial imposition of word length. This is not to say Grand Cru Heist is not worth reading. It’s nicely written and elegantly translated. It’s full of interesting details about wine and food. It’s just a little undercooked.

For reviews of other books in the series, see:
Deadly Tasting
Nightmare in Burgundy
Treachery in Bordeaux.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Treachery in Bordeaux by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen

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Treachery in Bordeaux by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen (translated by Anne Trager) (Le French Book, 2012) The Winemaker Detective Series (titled Mission à Haut-Brion in the series rather more provocatively titled Le sang de la vigne or The Blood of the Vine, in France). There are twenty-one books in the series which are “detective” novels, each one focusing on a crime in a different leading French vineyard and its appellation d’origine contrôlée. Under the same title, Le sang de la vigne, the books have also been a successful series on French television, so far running eight ninety-minute episodes. So here we go with the first run out in English for Benjamin Cooker, his wife Elisabeth, and Bacchus, their Irish setter. He’s the ultimate wine guru and winemaker who bottles from his own Bordeaux estate in Grangebelle on the banks of the Gironde, and writes the definitive guide to what’s drinkable in the wine world. Whether it’s a grand cru estate or a new blender, everyone waits in trepidation to see what his judgment of their latest efforts will be. His new assistant is Virgile Lanssien from Bergerac who, on his first day, goes with Benjamin to the Chateau Les Moniales Haut-Brion where an outbreak of Brettanomyces is suspected: a yeast that can change the taste and bouquet of a serious wine for the worst.

Noël Balen (left) and Jean-Pierre Alaux (right)

Noël Balen (left) and Jean-Pierre Alaux (right)

For a leading wine, this is a catastrophe unless the infection is nipped in the proverbial bud. Fortunately Cooker acts as a consultant and can call on top-class chemists and other experts, all of whom act with absolute discretion. It would be immensely damaging to the reputation of any major label if even a hint of scandal should emerge. The question, once the initial diagnosis is confirmed, is how the barrels should have become infected. It most commonly occurs in cellars which fail to observe even the most basic of hygiene standards. This cellar is run to the highest standards of care. It’s inconceivable that this could be accidental. The question, therefore, is who would have a motive to contaminate such high-profile wine and how was it done. For obvious reasons, the cellar has a good security system and only two individuals have keys and the access code.

Running in parallel is the provenance of an overmantle, a painting most often hung over a fireplace. To his surprise, Cooker discovers that there’s another very similar painting. When he investigates, he finds both paintings were almost certainly by the same artist and might have been a pair. In turn this leads to an ageing, alcoholic historian who rambles drunkenly through much of the history of the area and, in the final moments before falling into unconsciousness, volunteers the information that the two paintings were part of a triptych. From this brief introduction you will notice the welcome omission. This is a mystery without a murder! Too often writers of mysteries think they must kill off several people in order to entertain their readers.

This is a novella length but manages to cram in a mass of fascinating detail about winemaking and the history of the Bordeaux region where we discover much intrigue and skullduggery of different degrees of viciousness. It seems little has changed over the centuries. Treachery in Bordeaux should be of interest to anyone who enjoys a good mystery, and has an interest in wine and its place in French culture.

For reviews of other books in this series, see:
Deadly Tasting
Grand Cru Heist
Nightmare in Burgundy.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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