I didn't think I was going to like this book before I started it – I imagined a cross between a "cosy" mystery and a Peter Mayle-style expat's view of France – neither being quite my cup of tea. I couldn't have been more wrong. BRUNO, CHIEF OF POLICE may be a gentle book, but at the same time it does not pull its punches. It is well written, introducing a charming, likeable main character; a satisfying detective story; and conveying a strong love and understanding of the Dordogne region of France – its traditions, people, history and the forces that threaten them – by an author who, although English, has lived in the region part-time for some years and clearly identifies strongly with it.
As the book opens, we are introduced to Bruno, the chief and, in fact, only policeman in the small town of St Denis. He owes his position to the mayor, with whose son Bruno served in the army in Bosnia. The mayor's son is an academic and lives away from the region where he grew up, but Bruno, an orphan, is treated by the mayor as a kind of surrogate son. The affection between the two men is one of the many understated but rewarding aspects of this book.
Before getting stuck into the crime plot, Martin Walker introduces us in a leisurely style to the main concerns of the local people: to defeat the bureaucrats from Brussels in order to carry on their age-old traditions of making, and selling, duck pate, local vintages of various alcoholic types, cheeses and other produce now contrary to EU diktats. We are introduced to the market, the tennis and rugby clubs, the school and other local high spots such as a camp site, a cave with ancient paintings, and a cast of characters including a mad Englishwoman (who isn't mad), a baron and a doctor. Although portrayed with affection, we don't delve too far into sentiment: some of the locals are not above scraping the date stamps off supermarket eggs, smearing them with straw and chicken shit, and selling them individually at exorbitant rates to the tourists.
Bruno's job is to know every nuance of town life, stopping the farmers and traders from resorting to too many illegal activities while outsmarting the regulators and gendarmes in a range of smile-inducing ways. Because he is involved in many aspects of town life (for example he coaches all the young children in tennis, so knows everyone's character), this act isn't too challenging for Bruno, who carries off his daily tasks with aplomb while cultivating his garden and cooking mouth-watering meals.
The a brutal crime occurs, very different from the usual level of rescuing cats or redirecting traffic on market day: an old man is killed and a swastika carved on his torso. The victim is part of the local North African Arab community: his son is the maths teacher at the school and his grandson a local rugby star, himself about to become a father. The immediate assumption is that the crime is racially motivated, so reinforcements are called in from the regional crime squad and, less happily, from the Paris judiciary. Two suspects are rapidly identified, but although they are clearly guilty of some crimes, the police cannot tie them to the murder. In the meantime, temperatures between the Arab and French communities are rising, so Bruno and the mayor have their work cut out to make everyone understand that they are all French and that little is gained, and much lost, by mob rule.
The spectre of the war hangs over this book, set in a part of France once ruled by the Vichy government and where memories are long. In addition, there are newer political factions intent on gaining their own ends. Bruno, however, is only interested in learning the truth, not in convenient solutions. Although he is patronised by some of the more "modern" police and judiciary officially in charge of the investigation, Bruno's determination to solve the crime by finding evidence, combined with his strong local knowledge and interests, eventually pays off – though his deductive feat presents him with a moral dilemma that he brushes aside rather too lightly, in my opinion.
With his successful solution to the case, would Bruno, who lives a simple, even at times Spartan life, trade it in for ambition as well as love? He says "I think there are two kinds of people in this world. There are those who do their work for eight hours a day and they don't enjoy it and don't respect themselves very much for what they do. And then there are those who don't see much difference between their work and the rest of their lives because the two fit happily together. What they do to earn their living doesn't seem like drudgery to them. Around here there are a lot of people like that."
Although in many respects this is a "feel-good" book, providing an idyllic and partisan depiction of the French country way of life which exists still despite the efforts of the relentless modern world to homogenize it, the author is not afraid to address difficult issues head-on, personal and political. The stories of the French resistance in the Nazi regime and the fate of the French North Africans during the DeGaulle years are sombre, told with authority and style, as one might expect from an author who has written distinguished histories (as well as a previous novel about the famous prehistoric art in the caves of the region) and covered many international conflicts during his journalistic career. I am glad that BRUNO, CHIEF OF POLICE is the first in a series, as I look forward to reading more about this charmingly self-deprecating man, his past (plenty of angles are hinted at) and his neighbours – not forgetting, of course, his next criminal case.