Photo: couple walking castle Dordogne

Photograph by Catherine Karnow, Corbis

By Don George

March 2009

Book of the Month: 
Bruno, Chief of Police,
by Martin Walker

Ever since I lived and worked in Paris the summer after graduating from college, I have wanted to visit the Dordogne region in southwest France. A colleague of mine that Parisian summer hailed from Dordogne and used to spin glowing tales of his native region, full of ancient history, exquisite landscapes, and hearty cuisine.

At last, thanks to Martin Walker's new book, Bruno, Chief of Police, I have fulfilled that long-ago wish. The Dordogne is the setting for Walker's winning mystery, and while Bruno is the central character in the book, the region plays a critical role.

A longtime reporter, editor, and international affairs columnist for the Guardian and United Press International, Walker lovingly evokes the fictional town of St. Denis where his story is set. This is a village of lush green oak and walnut trees and meadows, golden stone buildings, red tiled rooftops, and wrought-iron railings hung with washing, where no building is less than 200 years old. It's a place where secretaries and street sweepers take their morning croissants and coffee at the same zinc bar every day, limestone cliff caves cradle prehistoric wall-paintings, and the chief of police is as renowned for the vin de noix green walnut liqueur he devotedly concocts as for his crime-solving abilities.

This seemingly idyllic setting's placid surface obscures, as in much of France, dark historic currents and contemporary conflicts. These begin to emerge when a war hero from Algeria is brutally murdered in an apparently racist attack. As Walker's protagonist slowly begins to unravel the truth behind the murder, new facets of Dordogne emerge, from enmities that date back to World War II.

Walker weaves these threads into a flowing Peter Mayle-meets-Alexander McCall Smith narrative that illuminates the unresolved undercurrents and alluring rites and riches of rural France. In the end, Bruno proves to be not simply a perspicacious detective, but an engaging guide to the delights of Dordogne.

New-Book Roundup
American Perspectives

In The Missing: A Novel, by Tim Gautreaux, the floorwalker in New Orleans's biggest department store goes in search of a missing child who disappears during his watch. The search takes him on a steamboat down the Mississippi and into some dark corners of the South post-World War I—and eventually to redemption. In Honolulu, Alan Brennert tells the story of Jin, a "picture bride" from Korea who comes to Oahu in 1914. When her farm-laborer husband turns out to be abusive, she manages to escape to Honolulu and builds a new life set against the backdrop of a changing Hawaii through the 1920s and the Depression. In J. California Cooper's latest novel, Life is Short but Wide, 91-year-old narrator Hattie B. Brown introduces us to the African-American Strong family of Wideland, Oklahoma, through several generations spanning the 1900s. Trials and triumphs mark their years as the small town itself evolves. In Lafcadio Hearn: American Writings, editor Christopher Benfey gathers a selection of work by the offbeat and restless journalist (1850-1904) who may be best known for his writings on New Orleans and Japan.

Reading Matchmaker
If You Go All Out For St. Patrick's Day . . .

. . . pick up At the Edge of Ireland: Seasons on the Beara Peninsula, by David Yeadon. The book follows Yeadon's travels in this lesser known part of southwest Ireland, searching out faith healers, ceili concerts, and his own Irish heritage. Bonus: The book is accompanied by Yeadon's own illustrations, from a portrait of a local cheesemaker to landscapes and pub scenes.

One Last Thing
A Venetian Journey

Bringing a contemporary city to life in words is an extraordinary enough challenge. But bringing a mid-19th-century city to life is infinitely more challenging. Edgar Award-winning mystery writer Jason Goodwin overcomes the challenge with vigor and grace in The Bellini Card, his third in a series of historical mysteries featuring the eunuch investigator Yashim, who serves the Ottoman court in 19th-century Istanbul. In this new book Yashim journeys to Venice at the behest of the new sultan to search for a legendary portrait of Mehmet the Conqueror, painted by Gentile Bellini. From its fast-paced dialogue to its interlacing political and social intrigues to its atmospheric depictions of Venetian life, The Bellini Card presents a riveting and revealing journey in time and space.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

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