Bruno, Chief of Police
Vintage Books, 2010
Originally published in the UK in 2008 by Quercus Books
Suddenly Bruno noticed something odd. After every previous parade, whether it was for the eighth of May, or the eighteenth of June, when de Gaulle launched Free France, or the fourteenth of July, when France celebrated her Revolution, or the eleventh of November, when the Great War ended, Jean-Pierre and Bachelot would turn away from each other without so much as a nod and walk back separately to the Mairie to store the flags they carried. But this time they were standing still, staring fixedly at one another. Not talking, but somehow communicating. Amazing what one bugle can do, thought Bruno. Maybe if I can get some Americans into the parade next year they might even start talking. But now it was thirty minutes after midday and, like every good Frenchman, Bruno turned his thoughts to lunch.
In the village of St. Denis, in the Périgord region of France, Bosnian war veteran and police chief Benoît “Bruno” Courrèges keeps the peace. It’s not a particularly daunting task; he keeps his gun locked up in his office safe even when out on patrol, and isn’t entirely sure where his handcuffs are, though he thinks they’re in his van somewhere. Fortunately life in St. Denis is peaceful, the greatest threats being obnoxious English tourists and even more obnoxious health inspectors from the European Union who want to shut down St. Denis’ centuries-old market for selling unlicensed cheese and pâté de foie gras. When he’s not keeping a sharp eye out for the inspectors, Bruno makes sure everything is in order for the annual round of parades commemorating France’s liberation, teaches tennis at the local athletic club, and bottles his own vin de noix, a liqueur made from unripened walnuts. Bruno’s life is as idyllic as anyone could ask for.
But then an elderly North African immigrant and World War II veteran is horrifically murdered, and suddenly St. Denis’ pastoral veneer is pulled aside, revealing the darkness lying beneath. Immediately the twin specters of racism and anti-immigration politics rear their ugly heads. The investigation is taken over by a team of detectives from the Police Nationale, effectively shutting Bruno out. Inspector Isabel Perrault, however, recognizes the value of Bruno’s local knowledge and the trust the villagers have in him, and so he is able to keep up with the investigation’s progress.
Together, Bruno and Inspector Perrault overturn the accusations of racism and anti-immigrant violence and dig deeper, into the history of the Vichy regime and the efforts of the Resistance against Nazi occupation in the Périgord. What they find profoundly shakes Bruno’s perceptions of St. Denis and his neighbors.
Bruno, Chief of Police is a terrifically charming book. In fact – and unfortunately – its charm is its greatest weakness. Don’t get me wrong: I love charming. I’m drawn to it like a lazy writer to a cliché. However, there is such a thing as an excess of charm. If charm were petroleum, this book could fuel both the US and China into the next millennium. See the charming French hamlet, populated by whimsically charming eccentrics! Admire the charming and handsome bachelor police chief with a tragic (but not too tragic – can’t have angst elbowing charm aside) past! Sigh happily at the developing romance between the charming bachelor police chief and the clever and charming attractive inspector! Grin knowingly at the charming gentle mockery of British tourists! Drool over the charmingly fabulous dinner Bruno prepares! You will be charmed to your back teeth by this book, by God.
I am exaggerating, of course, though not as much as I’d like to be. The charm is laid on so thick that as the investigation unfolds, the darkness – which is nearly as dark as the charm is, well, charming – comes as a breath of fresh air and a welcome relief. It almost brings the story back into balance. Walker is a long-time journalist and editor and respected scholar and has written several non-fiction books in addition to the Bruno series and a stand-alone novel (The Caves of Périgord), so I’m going to chalk up my issues with Bruno, Chief of Police to a touch of overenthusiastic love for his adopted home – the Peter Mayle effect, one might say.
Although I found Bruno, Chief of Police annoyingly twee when I first read it this summer, as my initial impressions have faded I remember it more fondly. It’s actually a nice change from mysteries set in charming English villages and despite all the charm it’s not a cozy, which is a subgenre I’ve never warmed to, so I expect I will read the next installment when it comes out in paperback (The Dark Vineyard came out in hardback in the US last summer; the 3rd installment, Black Diamond, was released in the UK around the same time and has not yet been published here).