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Deadly Tasting by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen

August 13, 2014 4 comments

Deadly Tasting

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.

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

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

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:

Grand Cru Heist
Nightmare in Burgundy
Treachery in Bordeaux.

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

Vulture au Vin by Lisa King

July 6, 2014 3 comments

Vulture au vin by Lisa King

Vulture au Vin by Lisa King (Permanent Press, 2014) presents a pleasingly different structure for the narrative. In the conventional linear mystery or detective novel, we have the setup which usually focuses on a homicide or some moderately serious crime. In turn, this operates as the catalyst for the second phase which is interaction between our series character(s) and the immediate suspects for the current investigation. In the final part of the novel, there’s a resolution where our series character(s) say(s) whodunnit and, under normal circumstances, we all walk away contented. Handled well, this type of novel delivers a considerable punch because, as in all the best feel-good systems, we move from a bad situation to a relatively happy ending where our desire to see justice done is satisfied.

This novel, however, rather cleverly exploits the notion of a frame story wrapped around a Golden Age style murder mystery. In the conventional use of the frame story, the author embeds a portmanteau of shorter narratives inside the frame, or uses the frame as an introduction to the main part of the novel, i.e. the frame is simply an excuse for launching into the central narrative. Here we have the frame show us life before and after a trip to the house owned by Theodore Lyon. As is required in Golden Age style mysteries, this is stuck out in the wilds of San Diego County in a fairly remote canyon called Valle de los Osos where the vultures ride the thermals in search for anything recently deceased to snack on. Some novelists would write this section of narrative as a free-standing novel. There’s the usual introduction of the old vs the new residents. A 92-year-old cares for and defends the vultures. They reward her by finding the dead body of a local girl, murdered by persons unknown. This victim was an occasional worker at the new house perched uncomfortably on the land—and so the trail of breadcrumbs begins. It all ends with more death, and a raging inferno as bush fires race across the water-starved landscape. It’s all beautifully realised.

Except, of course, some readers want to know what happens after the flames died down and people could return to the burnt out homes to find what had survived. And that’s just what this book delivers. Our wine expert, her lover, and the man who protected her all have lives to go back to. This means there’s fallout to deal with as they try to get life back into a familiar pattern. Sadly, that’s not going to work. First there’s the relationship between our heroine and her lover. As we see from her behaviour at the Lyon house, she’s not exactly living a monastic life while away from him. Perhaps surprisingly, the lover accepts the woman’s failure to make a formal commitment. He just gets depressed when the lack of exclusivity is admitted. Then there’s her protector who’s gay and a martial arts expert. For all he runs a self-defence organisation teaching gay people how to protect themselves if they are attacked in a public place, he’s tended to live a relatively quiet life. That begins to change as a new man comes into his life. Such changes to the emotional landscape can be positive forces for good. In this case, of course, question marks remain.

On balance, I like this approach which gives us a real sense of continuity. Too often detective novels in the Golden Age were presented as puzzles at a more technical level for their series detective to solve. For the usual mixture of motives, this heroine finds herself placed in a situation because of her reputation (and that’s not just because she’s a good journalist). Her curiosity and refusal to be distracted means she identifies one of the crimes in motion in this new household. In other words, the several deaths in and around Valle de los Osos are placed in a proper context. We’re not just interested in deciding who the killer(s) is/are, there are a raft of other issues to investigate and resolve. The result makes Vulture au Vin a highly engaging and rather more interesting a book than the usual mystery fare. Add in the bonus of descriptions of wine and good food. . . The complete package sumptuously satisfies all taste buds for whodunnits and feasting at more elite levels of society.

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

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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