Murder on Brittany Shores is a superbly plotted mystery that marks the return of Jean-Luc Bannalec's international bestselling series starring the cantankerous, coffee-swigging Commissaire Dupin (Available July 26, 2016).
Ten miles off the coast of Brittany lie the fabled Glénan Islands. Boasting sparkling white sands and crystal-clear waters, they seem perfectly idyllic, until one day in May, three bodies wash up on shore. At first glance the deaths appear accidental, but as the identities of the victims come to light, Commissaire Dupin is pulled back into action for a case of what seems to be cold-blooded murder.
Ever viewed as an outsider in a region full of myths and traditions, Dupin finds himself drawn deep into the history of the land. To get to the bottom of the case, he must tangle with treasure hunters, militant marine biologists, and dangerous divers. The investigation leads him further into the perilous, beautiful world of Glénan, as he discovers that there's more to the picturesque islands than meets the eye.
The First Day
The long, flat islands floated on the deep opal sea as if by magic, a little blurred, shimmering. The famous archipelago lay before them like a Fata Morgana.
The contours of the larger islands were already visible to the naked eye, not much to distinguish between them: the fortress shrouded in mystery on Cigogne, Penfret’s long-serving storm-lashed lighthouse, the abandoned farm on Drénec, the occasional weather-beaten house on Saint-Nicolas which was the main island in the almost circular archipelago. The Îles de Glénan. A legend.
They were ten nautical miles from the mainland, from Concarneau, the magnificent ‘Blue City’ of Cornouaille, whose residents had been calling the islands their ‘guardians’ for as long as anyone could remember. Day after day they were their unshakeable horizon. From morning onwards you could tell the weather from how they looked, clear, sharp, blurred, pale, whether they shook or lay still in the water, and on certain days, you could tell the weather for the rest of the year. For hundreds of years there had been fierce debate in Brittany about how many islands there were. Seven, nine, twelve or twenty were the most common counts. Seven ‘large’ ones, that was the only undisputed thing. And large meant a few hundred metres long – at most. It had all been one island once, a very long time ago, then little by little the tossing sea and the constant breakwater had torn them apart. Some years ago, a committee from the département, following the official criteria for determining an island – land in the sea that is permanently above water and features equally permanent vegetation – had identified ‘twenty-one islands and islets’ with absolute authority. Besides these, there seemed to be an almost endless number of jagged rocks and rock formations towering upwards. This number was also surprisingly variable, depending on the state of high and low tides, which in turn varied significantly themselves, depending on the positions of the sun, moon and earth. Some days a high tide was three or four metres higher than other days and at an extremely low tide an island could be many times larger and, perhaps, linked to a sandbank above water that usually lay hidden beneath the surface. There was never a ‘normal’ situation. That’s how the archipelago’s landscapes came to be in a constant state of flux and nobody could ever say: that’s them, the Glénan, that’s how they look. The Glénan were not clearly land, they were an ambiguous middle-ground, half land, half sea. During raging winter storms, huge waves occasionally rolled over the islands, the heavy sea spray turning everything into sea. ‘Almost lost in the nothingness, in the great expanse,’ that was the people’s poetic, but precise description.
It was an extraordinary, early May day, indistinguishable from a true summer’s day, the same absolutely unbelievable temperatures, the same strong light, the same magnificent colours. Even the air was already summery – it was lighter, it carried a little less salt, less iodine, seaweed and algae; yet it had that Atlantic freshness that is so difficult to describe. Even now, at ten o’clock in the morning, the sun created a gleaming, fitfully flaring horizon with a silver funnel below that narrowed down and down towards the observer.
Commissaire Georges Dupin from the Commissariat de Police Concarneau wasn’t paying much attention to any of this. He was in an extremely bad mood this Monday morning. Only moments before he had been sitting in his café, the Amiral, having just ordered his third coffee and with his newspapers lying in front of him – Le Monde, Ouest France, Télégramme – when his phone had startled him with a shrill ring. Three corpses had been found on the Glénan. Nothing was known at this point – just that. Three corpses.
He had set off immediately. His regular cafe, where he began his day every day, was right at the harbour and just a few minutes later he had found himself on board a police speedboat. Commissaire Dupin had been on the Glénan just once – on Penfret last year, the island on the eastern edge of the archipelago.
The speedboat had been travelling for twenty minutes. They were halfway there. Commissaire Dupin would have been glad to be more than halfway. Travelling by boat on the open water was not his cup of tea, no matter how much he loved the sea like a genuine Parisian from the sixth Arrondissement loved the sea– because that is what he had been up until his ‘relocation’ almost four years ago now – the beach, watching, ideally bathing, the feel, the smell, the excitement. Even worse than boat travel itself, was travelling in one of the two new speedboats which the marine police had acquired after long, bitter struggles with bureaucracy and which were their pride and joy. The latest models were impressive high-tech miracles with probes and sensors for everything. They positively shot across the water. One boat had been christened Bir – ‘arrow’ in Breton – the second Luc’hed – ‘lightning’. These were not good names for boats as far as Dupin was concerned, but in naming them, only the meaning had counted.
Commissaire Dupin was also lacking caffeine, which made him thoroughly grumpy. Two coffees weren’t even close to enough. He was rather stocky in stature, not fat, but definitely not thin either and had suffered from very low blood pressure since his youth.
He had got on board reluctantly, mainly because he didn’t want to show any weakness and because Inspector Riwal, who was one of his two young inspectors and looked up to him (which Dupin generally found unpleasant) had also got on board.
Dupin would have been prepared to drive the half hour to the little airport in Quimper and fly to the Glénan in headquarters’ pitiful, rickety two-man police helicopter, even though it would have taken longer overall and flying was in no way enjoyable for him. But his boss, the Prefect, was out in the helicopter – a ‘friendly meeting’ with the Prefecture of the British Channel Islands (Guernsey, Jersey and Alderney), in Bordeaux, a sleepy backwater on Guernsey. Police cooperation should – this was the firm English and French wish – be stepped up: ‘Crime should have no chance, no matter what its nationality.’ Commissaire Dupin couldn’t stand the Prefect, Lug Locmariaquer, and even now, having known him for almost four years, still couldn’t pronounce his name (Georges Dupin generally had a difficult relationship with authority, completely justifiably, in his view). For weeks he had been taking calls from the Prefect, who was ‘collecting ideas’ to be discussed at one such illustrious Prefecture meeting, annoying at first, then tortuous. At Locmariaquer’s request, Nolwenn, Dupin’s infinitely patient assistant, had had to research ‘unsolved cases’ from the last decade that ‘perhaps, conceivably, in some way’ presented a lead to the Channel Islands, cases which could ‘perhaps, conceivably, in some way’ have been ‘capable of being solved’ if there had already been closer cooperation. It was absolutely ridiculous. Nolwenn had baulked. She could not grasp why, here ‘in the south’, anyone had to concern themselves with the channel far to the north where icebergs drifted through the sea and it rained all year long. Files had been pored over by the metre and they hadn’t found a significant case – which the Prefect had not be at all happy about.
What had not improved Dupin’s mood on the boat had been the little ‘accident’ which had come about shortly after they had cast off to sea. He had done what only the worst landlubbers do – at that speed, stiff wind from the port side and a somewhat roughsea in that exact place, on the port side – he had cast a glance at the islands while Inspector Riwal, along with the two crew members of the Bir, had taken care to stand close to the starboard side. It hadn’t taken long for an enormous wave to get him. Commissaire Dupin had been soaked through. His permanently open jacket, his polo-shirt and jeans – his work uniform from March to October – clung to his body, only the socks in his shoes had stayed dry.
But what was making the Commissaire particularly foul-humoured was not having any information apart from that one fact: that three bodies had just been found. Dupin was not a man of patience. Not at all. On the phone, Kadeg, his second inspector, with whom he was generally at loggerheads, had only been able to pass on what he in turn knew, based on an agitated call that had come into the Commissariat shortly before, from ‘a man with a strong English accent’. The bodies lay on the north-eastern beach of Le Loc’h, the biggest island in the archipelago – and ‘the biggest island’ meant four hundred metres long. Le Loc’h was uninhabited, with the ruins of a convent, an old graveyard, a dilapidated soda factory and – the greatest of the island’s attractions – a laguna-like lake. Kadeg had needed to repeat that he had no other information a dozen times. Dupin had peppered him with all kinds of questions – his almost fanatical obsession with insignificant-seeming details and circumstances was notorious.
Three dead bodies and nobody knew anything – understandably, the Prefecture had been gripped by excitement: it was quite a big thing here in Finistère, the picturesque ‘End of the World’ as the Romans had called it. For the Gauls, the Celts – and the people here considered themselves as such to this day – it was the exact opposite – not the end of the world, but literally the ‘beginning’ – the ‘Head of the World’. ‘Penn ar Bed’, not ‘finis terrae’.
The boat had slowed down – they were only going at a moderate speed now. There was some difficult navigating to come. The sea was shallow here and dotted with towering rocks – above and below the surface of the water – and driving a boat in these waters was essentially only for extremely experienced captains. It was even trickier at low tide, as it was now. The least dangerous way to access the archipelago was the ‘entrance’ between Bananec and the large sandbank in front of Penfret. Through it, you could get to the section of sea in the middle of the archipelago, protected from storms and rough seas by the surrounding islands called ‘la chambre’ – ‘the chamber’. With smooth movements, the Bir was expertly manouevred between the rocks and made for Le Loc’h.
‘We won’t get any closer.’
The captain of the police boat, a young, gangly chap in a high-tech fabric uniform that flapped fiercely about him, called down from his raised captain’s booth without looking at anyone as he did so. He was fully absorbed by the navigating.
Dupin started to feel queasy. It was still a good hundred metres to go to the island.
‘Spring tide. Coefficient 107.’
The lanky captain called this into the great unknown too. Commissaire Dupin looked at his inspector quizzically. After the incident with the large wave, he had made his way over to stand right next to the others and not moved from that spot. Riwal moved very close to Dupin. Even though the boat was barely moving, the motors were still deafeningly loud.
‘We have extreme tidal amplitude at the moment, Monsieur le Commissaire,’ he said. On spring tide days, the water level is significantly lower again than during a normal low tide. I don’t know whether you…’
‘I know what a spring tide is.’
Dupin wanted to add ‘because I’ve been living in Brittany for nearly four years and have already experienced quite a few spring tides and neap tides,’ but he knew it was pointless. He would also have had to admit that although he had had the thing about tidal coefficients explained to him many, many times, to this day he had never really been able to remember how they worked. To Riwal, and to all Bretons, he would still be a ‘foreigner’ for decades to come (although this was not necessarily meant in a nasty way). And on top of this, the worst kind of foreigner for Bretons – a Parisian (which could in fact be meant in a thoroughly nasty way). He had to have it spelt out to him again, every time: if the moon, sun and earth are in alignment and this results in the forces of gravity adding up …
The motor suddenly died away and the two employees from the marine police who looked, Dupin only noticed now, hilariously like the captain – the same wiry stature, the same narrow face, the same uniform – were immediately making their way forward to the prow.
‘We won’t get any closer to the island. The water is too shallow.’
‘And what does that mean?’
‘We have to get out here.’
It took a few seconds for Dupin to respond.
‘We have to get out here?’
As far as Dupin could tell, they were still very clearly at sea.
‘The water isn’t deep any more, maybe half a metre.’
Inspector Riwal had knelt down and begun to take off his shoes.
‘But we have a dinghy.’
Dupin had only just noticed it. To his relief.
‘It’s not worth it, Inspector. We wouldn’t get much closer to the beach in that either.’
Eyebrows raised, Dupin looked over the ship’s rail. It seemed a lot more than half a metre deep to him. The water was incredibly clear. Every shell, every pebble was visible. A school of tiny pale green fish darted by. The boat was off the northern coast of Le Loc’h. Nothing but dazzling white sand, shallow turquoise water and the sea lying completely still in the chamber. With the addition of a few coconut trees – probably the only kind of palm tree that didn’t grow in Brittany, it seemed to Dupin – the scene would have been indistinguishable from the Caribbean. Nobody would ever have dreamt of associating this landscape with Brittany. But the sight could be marvelled at in hundreds of postcards – they were no exaggeration.
By now, Riwal had taken his socks off too. The boat’s crew had dropped anchor, leapt neatly into the sea without the slightest hesitation and were now in the process of turning the boat so that the stern, with the wooden step that was only just above the water, was pointed in the direction of the beach. Riwal, in pale-coloured slacks, jumped into the water too, as though it was the most natural thing in the world. And, directly after him, the gangly captain.
Dupin hesitated. It looked absurd, he thought. The young police officers, Riwal and the captain had stopped and were waiting. It looked as though they were forming a guard of honour. All eyes were fixed on him.
Dupin jumped. He hadn’t taken off his shoes. He was standing up to just over his knees in the Atlantic, which at the beginning of May was at most fourteen degrees now at the beginning of May. His eyes were fixed on the floor of the sea. The school of tiny pale green fish, now much bigger than before, approached inquisitively and swam fearlessly around his legs. Dupin made a half turn to follow the fish with his gaze – then he saw it: a magnificent crab, twenty or thirty centimetres long, in attack-ready position and staring right at him – a real ‘tourteau’, eaten with enthusiasm here on the coast, by Dupin as well. He stifled both a small cry of fear and his culinary enthusiasm. He looked up and realised that everyone was still standing motionless, watching him. Dupin straightened up his upper body with determination and began to wade in the direction of the beach, taking great care not to meet the gaze of Riwal or the other three police officers. His colleagues quickly overtook him on either side in the water.
Dupin was the last to reach the beach.
Copyright © 2016 Jean-Luc Bannalec.
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Jean-Luc Bannalec is a pseudonym. The author divides his time between Germany and coastal Brittany, France. Death in Brittany, the first case for Commissaire Dupin, was published in German in March 2012 and sold 600,000 copies, spending many months on the bestseller list. It has been sold into 14 countries.