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Review: “Bruno: Chief of Police” by Martin Walker

This novel, the first of a series, is set in the Dordogne area of South west France, the next major river valley north of where my family lives. The book itself was recommended to me by a local English friend and I had been hoping to find a great new series to read, based in an area I know well.

The first book in the series is only £1.80 for a Kindle download from Amazon so it was a good way to sample without splashing £7 on a paperback. I was even able to start reading on the Sunday it was recommended to me, deep in South West France. The internet is a wonderful tool for instant gratification.

To the story, which I went to read WANTING to like, yet I came away disappointed.

Probably the most important thing in a crime novel is the plot, and this works so I was able to read this through to the end. It is the story of a typical sleeping rural town, where there is a murder that appears to be a hate crime. Of course, nothing is that simple and the investigation unfolds down through a number of twists and turns, relatively conventional but to a clear conclusion.

Martin Walker, a Guardian journalist, lives part of the year in the Dordogne so I assumed the research and setting would be up to scratch. It is, but in a way that makes it one of two weaknesses of the novel; the other being the characterisation. Had I not known that Walker had published a previous novel I would have assumed this is a first novel, with the associated faults and weaknesses.

The two main problems go hand in hand. The best way I can describe them is to say this story is “murder in ‘A Year In Provence'”. There are lots of colourful French characters but they verge on or move into caricature. Most irritating is the new head of the Gendamerie for the Commune, who does not develop and is merely there to be a persistent hurdle the protagonist, Bruno Courrèges, must overcome at every step of the investigation. I did like Bruno, Chief of Police because he is the only local policeman in the town, but most of the villagers who appear as characters were two-dimensional.

The setting itself is a typical rural town in the area but rather than letting it unfold naturally, with French terminology the reader can look up if they don’t recognise it, every time a new term is introduced it is explained, interrupting the flow and making it feel like one is reading a travel guide not a novel.

It is true I have an advantage over many readers in that I am familiar with the local structures and political complexities and rivalries between the various police forces in France but many of the target audience could have a passing knowledge from news and holidays in France. Description and information should not be at the cost of the flow of the story and to the level where it is intrusive and irritating.

Another irritant was the black-and-white antipathy of the villagers to Government bureaucracy in Paris and Brussels. It felt like we were being treated to the author’s prejudices rather than a rounded view. After all, the rural farmers expressing their ire are the same French small farmers who do so very nicely out of the EU agricultural support mechanisms – yet that never had a mention. The few English characters, well-to-do and single – one becomes the ‘love interest’, seem to be there more for an English audience than because they serve a really necessary part of the story.

So, all in all, disappointing. A rating of 3 out of 5 – I finished it. But with the rest of the series all being over a fiver on Kindle download I will not be investing in more of the series. A shame because, as I said, I really wanted to like this.

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