I think this book, the first in a relatively new series, may be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Can't remember exactly where I read the recommendation, all I know is the title was new to me, though published in 2008. Alas, I seem to be out of the loop on a lot of books lately, what with one thing and another. Well, anyway, the book sounded intriguing, went for it and made a delightful discovery.
Bruno - Chief of Police is the story of Benoit Courreges, nicknamed Bruno, the very French, very charming (though stalwart) lone police officer of the rural village of St. Denis in the historic Dordogne area of France. Bruno is a veteran of the tragedies of the Bosnian war, happy to have found his peaceful niche. Village life agrees with him - the rhythm of the countryside agrees with him.
Bruno probably kissed a hundred women and shook the hands of at least as many men each market-day morning. First this morning was Fat Jeanne, as the schoolboys called her. The French, who are more attuned to the magnificent mysteries of womanhood than most, may be the only people in the world to treasure the concept of the jolie laide, the plain or even ugly woman who is so well at ease in herself and so cheerful in her soul that she becomes lovely. Fat Jeanne was a jolie laide of some fifty years, almost perfectly spherical in shape. The old brown leather satchel in which she collected the modest fees that each stallholder paid for the privilege of selling in the market of St. Denis thumped heavily against Bruno's thigh as Jeanne, squealing with pleasure to see him, turned with surprising speed and proffered her cheeks to be kissed in ritual greeting. Then she gave him a fresh strawberry from Madame Verniet's stall, and Bruno broke away to kiss the roguish old farmer's widow on both wizened cheeks in greeting.
Author Martin Walker (who lives in the southwest of France part of the year) seems to take pleasure in revealing the delights of small town French life where, apparently, brutal crime is something that takes place far away in another time and place.
But when a truly horrendous murder disrupts the routine of the village and captures the glare of the press and the entire country, Bruno knows that life in St. Denis may never be the same again. The victim is an elderly Arab veteran, a recipient of the Croix de Guerre and grandfather to a well liked, long established local family. At first labeled a 'hate crime' by the authorities from Paris who descend on the village, it becomes apparent to Bruno fairly soon that the hate involved may instead be an ugly remnant from a time most Frenchmen would rather forget: the dark, treacherous days of WWII.
They went back into the room that looked like a slaughterhouse and was beginning to smell like one. The firemen were clearing up the equipment and the room kept flaring with light as a gendarme took photos. Karim kept his eyes firmly away from his grandfather's corpse and pointed to the wall by the side of the fireplace. There were two nails in the wall but nothing hanging on either one.
"It's gone," Karim said, shaking his head. "That's where he kept it. He said he was saving it to give to his first grandson. The medal's gone. And the photo."
"What photo?" Bruno asked.
Author Martin Walker has fashioned a quietly paced yet gripping thriller, a roman policier which bares the heart and often secretive soul of small town village life. And in Bruno he has created an intelligent, charming, in many ways typically French, hero who may grow to equal the great Maigret in fame and acumen. If you love France, dream about France, long to visit (as I do) or have visited often and have plans to go back (lucky you), then this book is for you. It's also for you if you just like a gripping tale of vengeance and murder peppered with good food and drink.
The second in the series, The Dark Vineyard (A Mystery of the French Countryside) is already available and as I said, I think this is the start of a beautiful friendship.