- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 25, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

CHIEF OF POLICE

By Martin Walker

Knopf, $23.95, 288 pages

Reviewed by Martin Sieff

Martin Walker’s gentle, entrancing new French crime novel has been an enormous hit across Europe and it is easy to see why. But beneath its obvious professionalism and pleasures, as with its subtly original hero, there are far more hidden strengths and valuable messages than at first meet the eye.

Benoit “Bruno” Courreges is the still relatively young chief of police of St. Denis, an idyllic village in the Dordogne of southwest France. He’s a nice young fellow. Like any true Frenchman, he loves the ladies - but not too many and always discreetly. He guards his privacy and his precious bachelor status from the eager matchmakers of his village. And like any good Frenchman, he treasures his good lunch and afternoon nap.

Bruno is proud of the fact that after eight years as “Monsieur le Policier” of St. Denis, he has never had to fire his gun once in the course of his duty, and only had to even carry it in public three times, with one of those times being to hunt an escaped kangaroo. He is much more concerned about keeping up his backhand at the local tennis club than maintaining his marksmanship.

However, Bruno was a French soldier before he became a policeman, and he served with peacekeeping forces in the Balkans in the early 1990s, so there is a lot of steel beneath his easygoing surface. If Georges Simenon’s Commissaire Maigret had ever had a son and raised him back in the provinces, he would be Bruno.

Yet Bruno is also very much in the tradition of Agatha Christie. He is not Hercule Poirot, but a 21st century, modern European version of Christie’s revered Miss Marple.

Like Miss Marple, Bruno lives in a small, picturesque village where there is much more going on than any casual visitor or tourist dreams, and he keeps his steady eye on all of it. He is amiable, plugged into all the gossip and pleasant, petty, satisfying life of his village. The high-powered homicide detectives from the big, slick, sophisticated police forces underestimate him enormously.

All the best and most beloved detective mystery series are suffused with a rich sense of time and place. The world of Sherlock Holmes has come to dominate and even define later memories and global perceptions of late-19th-century London and Victorian England. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe lights up the Brownstone glitter of privileged Manhattan in the late 1940s and the 1950s. Miss Marple’s own village of St. Mary Mead and its cloned cousins across Southern England in Christie’s novels are a series of perfectly observed miniatures of respectable English village life for more than 40 years on from 1927. Mr. Walker has now pulled off the same magic trick for modern rural France.

Bruno’s village of St. Denis is a perfect example of Aristotle’s famous definition of the process of organic life. It remains ever the same yet is continually changing at the same time.

African and Algerian Arab immigrants to the new France and their families play crucial roles in both the village and the mystery. But old-fashioned political feuds going back almost 70 years to the darkest days of World War II are still surprisingly, malevolently alive, and they must be taken into account too.

For an American audience, Bruno will offer the same kind of genial but deep pleasures that picking up a new P.D. James or Alexander McCall Smith offers. But for any American reader, there is far more to be had from what looks like the start of a long, successful and very satisfying series.

For the English, Mr. Walker clearly treasures his provincial France. Here, his contrast with the Belgian Mr. Simenon is striking. Mr. Simenon, a hard-line Marxist writing in times of great economic hardship, lost no opportunity to demonize the social hierarchy and structures of petit-bourgeois provincial France. However, Mr. Walker cherishes what Mr. Simenon disdained.

In an era when most Americans are ignorant of France in its true richness, generosity of spirit and quality of life, Mr. Walker and his Bruno offer an enchanting introduction into this very real world. The American reading public should flock to join them.

Martin Sieff is a veteran foreign correspondent. He has been nominated three times for the Pulitzer Prize.

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