Fresh Meat: Death in Brittany by Jean-Luc Bannalec

Death in Brittany by Jean-Luc Bannalec marks the debut of the internationally best-selling procuedural series featuring the coffee-loving Commissaire Georges Dupin who's just relocated from Paris to a quaint coastal town (available June 30, 2015).

When it comes to crime, I read noir stuff primarily. Speaking broadly, I read a lot of crime fiction from the criminal’s point of view. But every now and then, I get the craving for a procedural, and at the same time, I wonder what locale to explore through the story. Procedurals often make for great armchair traveling, as every mystery devotee knows: what is more fun than diving into a mystery set in a place you’ve always wanted to visit but never have? Besides the pleasure of the puzzle, you submerge yourself in an environment, a culture. This is what I was looking for when I picked up Jean-Luc Bannalec’s Death in Brittany, and overall, reading the book gave me what I wanted.

We’re in the lovely town of Concarneau, along the northwest coast of France. It is summer, tourist season. Visitors are everywhere. In the Amiral Hotel sits a detective making his debut in fiction – Commissaire Dupin. He’s enjoying his coffee and croissants, reading his newspaper. If Dupin reminds you of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret, it may be because Dupin seems a man of routine like Maigret and the Amiral is an important location in Simenon’s novel The Yellow Dog. Dupin has lived in Paris his entire life, but due to “certain disputes (as the internal memos put it)”, he has been transferred to a region his superiors consider the sticks. It’s a part of France rich in history and natural splendor but where everyone seems to know everyone else. Few are more well-known than Pierre-Louis Pennec, the 91-year-old owner of the Central Hotel in the neighboring village of Pont-Aven. So when Pennec is found stabbed to death in his own hotel kitchen, it’s big local news. A Breton institution, the Central dates back to the late 1800’s, when Pennec’s grandmother founded it. Marie-Jeanne Pennec loved art and she made the hotel available to the many painters, Gauguin included, who came to Pont-Aven. A full-blown artist colony developed in the town. Pennec’s grandmother saw it as her mission to help and house the artists, and the colony became the Pont-Aven School of painting.

There were of course many things that drew the artists to Brittany and Pont-Aven…There was the ever enchanting landscape with its traces of the mysterious eras of menhirs and dolmens, hints of the land of the druids, great legends and epics. They certainly also came because Monet had been working on Belle Ile for a number of years and you could just about see Belle Ile from the mouth of the Aven. Or maybe it was because they were looking for the untouched, the simple, the unspoiled, and here they found the agricultural and rural, the old customs and festivals, and because they had an unbretonic tendency to be drawn towards anything wonderful or mystical.

All these years later, the Central’s history has become a prime selling point to tourists. Art permeates the atmosphere of this particular establishment, and Pierre-Louis Jennec ran it with clockwork precision for decades. Who would have wanted to murder a nonagenarian who was also a Brittany legend?

Death in Brittany is a traditional mystery tale that is solid in every respect. It does nothing new but conforms to genre well, starting with its devoted detective. In Dupin, we get a man who obsesses over coffee and likes meandering seaside walks. He loves food and and long delicious meals, but often he simply forgets to eat. He has his idiosyncracies, but the author purposely limits them and has a chuckle poking fun at the typical, tortured fictional detective:

…And that’s also why he found it a bit sad, because he lacked some of the ‘hidden depths’, which now seemed a quasi-requirement for his profession: drug addiction, or at least alcoholism, neuroses or depression to a clinical degree, a colorful criminal past, corruption on an interesting scale or several dramatically failed marriages. He didn’t have any of those things to show off about.

The book has a limited cast of suspects, five main ones in all, and as Dupin and his team question and investigate them, it becomes clear that art, in particular a Gauguin painting, will be at the heart of this mystery. Bannalec makes Pont-Aven’s history as an artistic hub a focal point of the story, and by doing so, he legitimizes his use of such a picturesque area as his setting. This is a classic, beautiful village detective story, but it’s no cozy. Bannalec does a pretty good job portraying the village in depth, getting beyond the picture postcard clichés. He describes the local cuisine with gusto, talks about the distinctive Breton mindset and Breton customs going back centuries, and has evocative descriptions of a landscape that we know must be striking if it’s attracted so many painters:

As evening came on, the light became more and more bewitching. The colours of witchcraft: everything shone brightly warm, soft, and golden. It always seemed to Dupin as though the sun mysteriously made everything glow for a few hours before it set. Things weren’t simply lit up: they radiated light from within themselves. Dupin had never seen this kind of light anywhere else in the world, only in Brittany.

At times, this novel made me think of the Cornwall-set novels of W.J. Burley.  His Superintendant Wycliffe solves crimes in the English version of a legend-rich, coastal enclave now beloved by tourists. And like Wycliffe, who doesn’t come from Cornwall, Dupin has an outsider perspective, something that helps endear him to the reader. We follow him as he tries to understand, as we do, the oddities and enigmas of Brittany. He still has a lot to learn about his newfound home, and I can only imagine that Jean-Luc Bannalec will have him back soon savoring his meals and drinking his coffee, taking his walks, and pursuing what might, by all indications, be a budding romance. Oh, yes, he’ll be solving crimes, too. That we know. He’ll be doing the job he likes in the region he likes, an ancient Celtic land by the sea.

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Scott Adlerberg lives in New York City. He co-hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series each summer at the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival in Manhattan. He blogs about books, movies, and writing at Scott Adlerberg’s Mysterious Island.  His most recent book is the genre-blending noir\fantasy novella Jungle Horses, available from Broken River Books.

Read all of Scott Adlerberg's posts for Criminal Element!

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