It's hard to review a book by one of your favorite authors when you don't think it measures up to what he has written in the past. Unfortunately, that was my reaction to Martin Walker's fifth Bruno, Chief of Police, novel, The Devil's Cave. The Bruno series is built on a firm foundation, the setting of the town of St. Denis in the Perigord area of France, and is a paean to the region's beauties both natural and gastronomic. The Devil's Cave continues to delight in this respect. The discussions of cookery especially intrigue me, and I can't wait to try Bruno's recipe for roasting a chicken impaled on an open can of beer to make it absorb a flavor that I would previously have associated only with red-meat recipes like boeuf a la flamand. Readers can also expect to learn fascinating tidbits of history or culture from a Bruno book. This one included lore about the influence of Satanism on Henry XIV's mistress and the participation of French communists in the WW II Resistance, and, appropriately in a series where love of animals is as prominent as love of people, Bruno tells us that the Marquis de Lafayette gave George Washington a gift of basset hounds. The series also glorifies the warmth of life in a small town, as when Bruno slows to exchange kisses and handshakes in the local market while he tries to rush to a crime scene. Finally, the small-village atmosphere naturally leads to a series in which relationships play an important role and continuing characters become old friends. This book adds a delightful new character, the basset hound puppy Balzac. In addition to loving animals, like any good Frenchman, Bruno loves women, specifically the British expatriate Pamela and fellow law-enforcement officer Isabella, and his frustration at not being able to forge a more committed relationship with one of them is another continuing theme. Both women play only minor roles in this book, but the protracted discussion of Pamela's unwillingness to commit and Isabella's ambivalence about whether to pursue a high-power career or a family life is becoming tedious. I wish Walker would either do something with this theme or ignore it. The biggest weakness in The Devil's Cave, though, is the plot, the most important single element of a novel. It is difficult to discuss the problems in detail without irrevocably spoiling the book, but there is simply too much going on. There are Black Masses and exorcism, a secret tunnel, international finance, possibly shady local land development, complicated family relationships leading back several centuries, and high-class prostitution, to name the major elements. It would be hard to make a unified and plausible story out of these elements, and to this reader the author did not succeed. Possibly because of this, several scenes that should have been emotionally charged, such as the exorcism and the final pursuit through the tunnel, failed to excite me. My ultimate impression of The Devil's Cave was that the foundation that has given the series its well-deserved reputation is still solid, but the story that forms the present volume is shaky. For those who have not read Bruno, I would in any case recommend you begin with the first book, Bruno, Chief of Police. For long-time Bruno fans, I'd say this installment is optional, and you might decide to wait for the next book. As Bruno would say, "Tant pis."
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