France has captured the imagination of wildly varied English-speaking writers, from Edith Wharton to James Baldwin and beyond. Martin Walker and Cara Black — born in Scotland and the United States, respectively — display their affection for French culture through mystery series that draw us in not just for the cheese and wine but also for the forensics and Christie-style puzzles.
Walker’s popular detective Bruno (Benoît Courrèges) was born in the Perigord and, after serving in the military, returned to try policing; he is now chief for the entire Vézère Valley. Black’s private detective and security consultant Aimée Leduc is a native Parisienne, daughter of a disgraced policeman.
Both authors feel the drumbeat of France’s past, from colonialism to Vichy to Jacques Chirac. Leduc scooters around a city synonymous with romance and intrigue. Bruno drives his battered Jeep through one of the most history-rich regions on Earth, where cave walls portray the aurochs and woolly mammoth.
Cara Black has studied Buddhism in India, taught English in Japan, and visits Paris at least twice a year with notebook in hand, to explore and to interview les flics about crime and procedure. The 20th Aimée Leduc novel, “Murder in the Porte de Versailles,” is taut, vivid, smart, rich in humanity and addictive momentum.
It is set in 2001, only a couple of months after the Sept. 11 attacks, and police and international authorities are on high alert. A dear friend of Aimée’s is found unconscious in an explosion’s rubble, with evidence indicating that he may have set the bomb. Black races ahead, in alternating scenes with Leduc and crooked cops and everyday people caught beyond their depth.
Martin Walker came late to fiction, after a long and successful career as a journalist — a quarter-century in Moscow as Russian bureau chief for the Guardian, editor in chief at UPI, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, author of books on topics such as the Cold War and the Clinton presidency.
After he and his wife bought a house in France, Walker was inspired by a compassionate and reliable real-life local policeman to create Bruno. Both he and Cara Black conjure an international background—corporate greed, terrorism, environmental threats—as vividly as they sketch a vineyard or an alley.
The strangest thing about Walker’s series is how often Bruno starts out like Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry and winds up like James Bond — with a dash of Anthony Bourdain. The running description on each Bruno novel is about landscape, not characters: “A Mystery of the French Countryside.” Walker has altered the subtitle for this collection to “And Other Stories of the French Countryside,” because these are not detective stories, although they are about a popular detective.
There is even a question about whether these charming vignettes are stories in the usual sense. In these outings, we accompany a cop as he performs professional and personal tasks that fall between the big cases. Some first appeared in Bruno cookbooks. Not much of a criminal nature occurs. In one story, helmeted and thus anonymous bikers vandalize a Senegalese resident’s coffee stall in the town market, apparently as racist intimidation. The story follows market politics, not the criminals, although eventually there is some resolution.
Like all of Walker’s writing, however, these glimpses are rich in atmosphere and an almost visceral perception of the sympathy and commitment that bond a group of neighbors into a community. Page after page, Walker writes some of the best prose in the genre, attending to both human relationships and the texture of everyday life with a sensuous appreciation.
Whether preparing nettle soup, liaising with the Police Nationale or reading boar scat, Bruno remains focused and efficient. As rooted in the Perigord soil as a grapevine, Bruno reminds me — in his rich emotional life of him, his love of community and food — of Joseph Hansen’s insurance investigator in 1980s Los Angeles, Dave Brandstetter.
If you are new to Walker’s series, don’t start with “Bruno’s Challenge.” It does n’t show off his plotting skills from him or his sly way of turning the screws in the last half of a novel. Do yourself the favor of beginning with “Bruno, Chief of Police” (2009). You don’t have to read the novels in order of publication, but doing so will let you witness how character relationships grow and change in realistic, unpredictable ways. However, if you already know and love Bruno and St. Denis, turn immediately to Martin Walker’s new platter of delicious morsels.
Michael Sims’ most recent nonfiction book is “Arthur and Sherlock,” and he is editing his ninth anthology, “The Penguin Book of Murder.”
Bruno’s Challenge: And Other Stories of the French Countryside
By: Martin Walker.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 256 pages, $27.
Murder at the Porte de Versailles
By: Cara Black.
Publisher: Soho Crime, 360 pages, $27.95