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Bruno, Chief of Police: A Novel of the French Countryside Paperback – April 6, 2010

4.3 out of 5 stars 436 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

1
On a bright May morning, so early that the last of the mist was still lingering low over a bend in the Vézère River, a white van drew to a halt on the ridge that overlooked the small French town. A man climbed out, strode to the edge of the road and stretched mightily as he admired the familiar view of St. Denis. The town emerged from the lush green of the trees and meadows like a tumbled heap of treasure; the golden stone of the buildings, the ruby red tiles of the rooftops and the silver curve of the river running through it. The houses clustered down the slope and around the main square of the Hôtel de Ville where the council chamber, its Mairie, and the office of the town’s own policeman perched above the thick stone columns that framed the covered market. The grime of three centuries only lately scrubbed away, its honey-colored stone glowed richly in the morning sun.

On the far side of the square stood the venerable church, its thick walls and squat tower a reminder of the ages past when churches, too, were part of the town’s defenses, guarding the river crossing and the approach to the great stone bridge. A great “N” carved into the rock above the central of the three arches asserted that the bridge had been rebuilt on the orders of Napoleon himself. This did not greatly impress the town’s inhabitants, who knew that the upstart emperor had but restored a bridge their ancestors had first built five centuries earlier. And now it had been established that the first bridge over their river dated from Roman times. Across the river stretched the new part of town, the Crédit Agricole bank and its parking lot, the supermarket and the rugby stadium discreetly shaded by tall oaks and thick belts of walnut trees.

The man enjoying this familiar sight was evidently fit enough to be dapper and brisk in his movements, but as he relaxed he was sufficiently concerned about his love of food to tap his waist, gingerly probing for any sign of plumpness, always a threat in this springtime period between his last game of the rugby season and the start of serious hunting. He wore a uniform of sorts, a neatly ironed blue shirt with epaulettes but no tie, navy blue trousers and black boots. His thick, dark hair was crisply cut, his warm brown eyes had a
twinkle, and his generous mouth seemed ready to break into a smile. On a badge on his chest, and on the side of his van, were the words POLICE MUNICIPALE. A peaked cap lay on the passenger seat.

In the back of the van were a crowbar, a tangle of battery cables, one basket containing newly laid eggs from his own hens, and another with his garden’s first spring peas. Two tennis rackets, a pair of rugby boots, sneakers, and a large bag with various kinds of sports attire and a spare line from a fishing rod added to the jumble. Tucked neatly to one side were a first-aid kit, a small tool chest, a blanket, and a picnic hamper with plates and glasses, salt and pepper, a head of garlic and a Laguiole pocketknife with a horn handle and a corkscrew. Tucked under the front seat was a bottle of not-quite-legal eau-de-vie from a friendly farmer. He would use this to make
his private stock of vin de noix when the green walnuts were ready on the feast of St. Catherine. Benoît Courrèges, chief of police for the small commune of St. Denis and its 2,900 souls, and universally known as Bruno, was always very well prepared.

He chose not to wear the heavy belt that weighs down almost every policeman in France with its attachments of holster and pistol, handcuffs and flashlight, keys and notebook. There was a pair of ancient handcuffs somewhere in his van, but Bruno would have to conduct a search to find them. He had a flashlight but it could use a new set of batteries. The van’s glove compartment held a notebook and some pens, but the notebook was full of various recipes, the minutes of the last tennis-club meeting and a list of the names and phone numbers of the minimes, the young boys who had signed up for his tennis lessons.

Bruno’s gun, a rather elderly MAB 9mm semiautomatic, was locked in his office safe in the Mairie, and in recent years he had taken it out only for his annual refresher course at the gendarmerie range in Périgueux. He had worn it on duty on only three occasions in his ten years in the Police Municipale. The first was when a rabid dog had been sighted in a neighboring commune, and the police were put on alert. The second was when the president of France had driven through St. Denis on his way to see the celebrated cave paintings of Lascaux nearby; he had stopped to visit an old friend, Gérard Mangin, who was the mayor of St. Denis and Bruno’s employer. The third time was when a boxing kangaroo escaped from a local circus. On no occasion had Bruno’s gun ever been used on duty, a fact of which he was extremely but privately proud. Of course, like most of the other men (and not a few women) of St. Denis, he shot almost daily in the hunting season and usually bagged his target, unless he was stalking the notoriously elusive bécasse, a bird whose taste he preferred above all others. Bruno gazed contentedly down upon his town in the freshness of the early morning. His eyes lingered on the way the sunlight bounced and flickered off the eddies where the Vézère River ran under the arches of the old stone bridge.The place was alive with light, flashes of gold and red, as the sun magically concocted prisms in the grass beneath the willows and danced along the honey-colored façades of the ancient buildings along the river. There were glints from the weathercock on the church spire and from the eagle atop the town’s war memorial, where Bruno would later that day attend one of the ceremonies that punctuated the nation’s year.

All looked peaceful as the business of the day began, with the first customers heading under the crimson awning into Fauquet’s café, tucked into the alley beside the Mairie. Even from this high above the town he could hear the grating sound of the metal grille being raised to open Lespinasse’s tabac, which sold fishing rods, guns, and ammunition alongside the cigarettes. Bruno knew without looking that, while Madame Lespinasse was opening the shop, her husband would be heading to the café for the first of many little glasses
of white wine that would keep him pleasantly lubricated until lunch.

From the secretaries and social workers to the street sweepers and tax assessors, the staff of the Mairie would also be at Fauquet’s, nibbling their croissants and taking their coffee at the long zinc bar, eying the tartes aux citron and the millefeuilles they might take home for lunch along with the essential baguette of fresh bread and scanning the headlines of that morning’s Sud Ouest. Alongside them would be a knot of old men studying the racing form and enjoying their first petit blanc of the day. Bachelot the shoemaker would take his morning glass there, while the neighbor he despised, Jean-Pierre, who ran the bicycle shop, would start his day at the Café de la Libération. Their enmity went back to the days of the Resistance, when one of them had been in a communist group and the other had joined de Gaulle’s Armée Secrète, but Bruno could not reliably remember which had been in which. He only knew that they had not spoken to one another since the war, had never allowed their families to speak beyond the frostiest “Bonjour,” and each man had
devoted many of the years since to subtle but determined efforts to seduce the other man’s wife. The mayor had once confided his conviction that each had attained his objective. Bruno, as a careful guardian of his own privacy in such tender matters, was content to allow others similar latitude. He enjoyed the continuity these morning movements represented. They were rituals to be respected—rituals such as the devotion with which each family bought its daily bread only at a particular one of the town’s four bakeries, except on those weeks of holidays when they were forced to patronize another, each time lamenting the change in taste and texture. These little ways of St. Denis were as familiar to Bruno as his own morning routine on rising in his old shepherd’s cottage in the hills above the town: his exercises while listening to Radio Périgord, his shower with a special shampoo to protect against the threat of baldness, the soap with the scent of green apples. Then he would feed his chickens while the coffee brewed and share toasted slices of yesterday’s baguette with his dog, Gigi.

Across the small stream that flowed into the main river, the caves in the limestone cliffs drew his eye. Dark but strangely inviting, the caves with their ancient engravings and paintings drew scholars and tourists to this valley. The tourist office called it the Cradle of Mankind. It was, they said, the part of Europe that could claim the longest period of continuous human habitation. For forty thousand years, through ice ages and warming periods, floods and wars and famine, people had lived here. Bruno, who reminded himself that there were still many caves and paintings that he really ought to visit, felt deep in his heart that he understood why those people had
chosen to remain in this gentle valley.

Down at the riverbank, he saw that the rider known to the town as the mad Englishwoman was watering her horse after her morning ride. In the town of St. Denis, everyone had a nickname, and since she was devoted to her horses and invariably carried treats to give to other people’s dogs she evidently conformed to the English stereotype of bizarre affection for animals, even those that did not hunt. Along with her love of privacy and her odd habit of filling in the Times crossword as she walked from the Maison de la Presse to collect her morning croissant from Fauquet’s café, this justified her title. As always, she was correctly dressed in gleaming black boots, cream jodhpurs and a black jacket, and her auburn hair flared out behind her neat black riding hat like the tail of a fox. Of course, she was anything but mad. Moreover, she appeared to make a good business of running her small guesthouse. She even spoke comprehensible French, which was more than could be said of most of the English who had settled here. Bruno looked further up the road that ran alongside the river and saw several trucks bringing local farmers to the weekly market. It would soon be time for him to go on duty. He took out the one item of equipment that never left his side, his cell phone, and called the familiar number of the Hôtel de la Gare.

“Any sign of them,Marie?” he asked. “They hit the market at St. Alvère yesterday, so they are in the region.”

“Not as of last night, Bruno. Just the usual guys from the museum project stayed here and a Spanish truck driver,” replied Marie, who ran the small hotel by the station. “But remember, after they were here last time and found nothing, I heard them talking about staying in Périgueux and renting a car there to put you off the scent.”

Bruno, whose loyalty was to his local community and its mayor rather than to the nominal laws of France, particularly when they were really laws the European Union made in Brussels, played a constant cat-and-mouse game with the inspectors who were charged with enforcing E.U. hygiene rules on the markets of France. Hygiene was all very well, but the locals of St. Denis had been making their cheeses and their pâté de foie gras and their rillettes de porc for centuries before the E.U. even existed, and did not take kindly to foreign bureaucrats telling them what they could and could not sell. Along with other members of the Police Municipale in the region, Bruno had established a rigorous early-warning system to alert the market vendors of their visits.

The inspectors, called “the Gestapo” by some locals in a part of France that had taken very seriously its patriotic duties to resist the German occupation, had made their first visit to the markets of Périgord in an official car with red-and-white Belgian license plates. On their second visit all the tires had been slashed. Next time they came in a car from Paris, with the telltale “75” as the last two digits of the plate. This car, too, had been given the Resistance treatment, and Bruno worried that the local countermeasures were getting out of hand. He had a good idea who was behind the slashings, and had issued some private warnings that he hoped would calm things down. There was no point in violence if the warning system could ensure that the markets were clean before the inspectors arrived.

Then the inspectors had changed their tactics and come by train, staying at local hotels. But they were easily spotted by the hotel keepers, who all had cousins or suppliers who made the crottins of goat cheese and the foie gras, the jams, the oils flavored with walnuts and truffles, and the confits that assured that this corner of France was known as the very heart of the nation’s gastronomic culture. Bruno, acting with the support of his mayor and all the elected councillors of the commune, including even Montsouris the communist, made it his duty to protect his neighbors and friends from the nuisances of Brussels, where the idea of food was known to stop at moules and pommes frites, and where perfectly good potatoes were adulterated with an industrial mayonnaise they did not have the patience to make themselves.

So now the inspectors were trying this new tack. They had succeeded in handing out four fines in St. Alvère the day before, but they would not succeed in St. Denis, whose famous market went back more than seven hundred years. Not if Bruno had anything to do with it. After one final gaze into the beautiful little corner of the world that was entrusted to him, Bruno climbed back into his van and headed for the market.


From the Hardcover edition.

Review

“A nice literary pairing with the slow-food movement . . . [It is] lovely . . . to linger at the table.” —Entertainment Weekly

“Enjoyable. . . . Martin Walker plots with the same finesse with which Bruno can whip up a truffle omelette, and both have a clear appreciation for a life tied to the land.” —The Christian Science Monitor

“[A] wonderfully crafted novel as satisfying as a French pastry but with none of the guilt or calories.” —Tucson Citizen’s Journal
 
“Bruno is a delightful character and Walker’s handling of long-held grudges is intelligent and sympathetic.” —The Guardian (London)

“A roman policier . . . that the celebrated Simenon, creator of Inspector Jules Maigret, would have been proud to claim . . . Readers [will] effortlessly enter French consciousness through [this] perspicacious book.” —Baton Rouge Advocate
 
“Highly satisfying.” —The Boston Globe
 
“Absolutely amazing.” The Knowledgeable Blogger
 
“Such a pleasure to read that I can’t help but suspect that Walker had equal fun writing it.” —BookBrowse
 
“Charming and many pages of the book will have readers purring with delight. There is, however, a darker side. . . . The crime which disturbs the idyllic commune of St Denis has its origins in France’s troubled past and provokes outbreaks of the politically inspired violence that simmers beneath the placid and agreeable surface presented to tourists.” —The Scotsman (UK)
 
“Distinctive well-rounded characters and an intriguing mystery are a winning combination in Martin Walker’s Bruno, Chief of Police. . . . Walker’s relaxed style and good humour help to bring to life his engaging hero and his delightful home and make one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a long time.” —Susanna Yager, Sunday Telegraph (UK)
 
“Martin Walker has not only written an engrossing roman policier, but he has written a book that goes to the very heart of what France–rural, small-town France–is like. It's a thriller, and full of surprises, but it will also appeal to anybody who loves France. Bruno, Chief of Police, is a wonderful creation.” —Michael Korda, author of Charmed Lives

“Hugely enjoyable and absolutely gripping. Martin Walker has got off to a flying start in what promises to be a great series. Bruno will be the Maigret of the Dordogne.” —Antony Beevor, author of Paris After the Liberation 1944-1949

“A splendid combination of a complex crime with tangled wartime origins that takes place in a lovingly described French village, and a totally original and sympathetic hero. Absolutely first rate. There must be more to come about Bruno!” —William Pfaff, author of Barbarian Sentiments: America in the New Century

“Martin Walker has found in Bruno a man rooted in the terroir of Perigord, who brings that quirky, lovable part of France alive. This novel is as tasty as a slice of Bruno’s local foie gras, topped with a glass of his homemade vin de noix.” —David Ignatius, author of Body of Lies
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; 1 edition (April 6, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 030745469X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307454690
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (436 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #30,252 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A. Ross HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 31, 2009
Format: Hardcover
The only reason I picked this book off the shelf in the library is because I was wondering if it was the same Martin Walker I'd been listening to for years as a commentator on my local NPR station. When I saw that it was, I took a closer look and, being a fan of crime fiction, thought I'd give it a go. Little did I suspect that I'd be so thoroughly engrossed by the routine of a small-town French policeman that I'd set aside all other reading for three days to tear through it.

The book is set in a quintessentially quaint and charming small town (pop. 2,900) in the super-picturesque Dordogneregion. The opening chapters are all about establishing the sights, smells, and rhythms of the town and the titular character's role within it as a kind of avuncular, sensible enforcer of the law. Well, not quite all laws (especially not the strict food processing laws of the EU), but the more important ones (unless you think drunk driving is important). However, soon enough, the quiet little town is devastated by the murder of a quiet old Algerian -- the father of the town's math teacher, and the grandfather of the town's rugby star.

This stirs up all kinds of tension, and as the National Front, provincial detectives, and prosecutors and politicians from Paris all flood in to get involved, Bruno has to do his best to protect the people of his idyllic town from all these outsiders.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In the village of St. Denis, life is very good. And the man with the best of lives is Brunoit (known as Bruno), the young and attractive Chief of Police, who leads the citizens of his village with empathy and sensitivity and is generally beloved. And that, largely, is what the book is about. There is no grit in this mystery and very little mystery: there are no bad guys but only the eddies that arise from the past. Even the death of a nearly invisible member of the community has only momentary impact with a barely jarring note. This is a love song to the small town life of rural France, where friends and neighbors are kind and helpful and generous, where the routine of daily life is soothing and reassuring and where, if you are an expatriate American (as the writer seems to be), everything is good in retreating from the bustle and where the demands of the modern world are muted. It is lovingly written, and while attractive, has little beyond the appeal of an airbrushed postcard. Readers of the Donna Leon series set n Venice with the more believable police chief, Brunetti, may like Bruno and the travel to this lovely village. Those who want a tangible mystery or a bit of depth in characters will feel as though they ate a profiterole...tasty but unmemorable.
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Format: Hardcover
A paean to the Dordogne, an exploration of fractious French history, and the debut of the most self-possessed, accomplished, even-tempered, life-savoring Holmesian character ever, Walker's first Bruno novel proves once and for all that heavyweight journalists can write mystery novels.

Former Russia and U.S. bureau chief for The Guardian, current Editor Emeritus of UPI, author of such books as "The Cold War," and "The President They Deserve," this British journalist, historian, scholar, and global policy advisor has created a hero dedicated to the quiet, regular, sensual life of rural France.

Bruno, an orphan abandoned by his mother, joined the military at an early age and spent 12 years with the Combat Engineers, which seems roughly equivalent to Special Forces. Receiving a Croix de Guerre for his service in the Balkans, Bruno retired to St. Denis and became the town's police chief and only policeman.

Although new to the town, he has become part of its fabric, savoring the rhythm of life - his own and that of the townspeople, from the two old WWII partisans that don't speak, and the town's token communist, to its bakers and cheese makers and vintners, its quarrels, rivalries and long-simmering feuds, even its newcomers - the English tourists who have lately been pushing up the housing prices.

He plays tennis with the Baron (atheist and retired industrialist), coaches kids at rugby, hunts birds, cooks, works on his house, organizes parades, safeguards the local market from the health inspectors of the European Union, and with the help of his friend the politically well-connected mayor, generally keeps the peace.
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Format: Hardcover
If you can't afford that vacation in the south of France this year, Bruno may be the next best thing. Walker does a wonderful job of evoking life in a small town in the Dordogne--its cuisine and odd characters, its humdrum rhythms--through the life of its shrewd, affable chief of police, the distinctively French rural bon vivant, Bruno. For good measure, Walker throws in interesting angles on everything from French bureaucracy to tensions between Muslim immigrants and the native population. A bit slow to start because of the luxuriant scene setting, the book quickly picks up and the pages fly by.
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