Bruno Courrèges may reside in rural France, but his passions are as sophisticated as any in Paris -- he cooks (the descriptions make my mouth water), enjoys the company of intelligent women (and makes love with them), and also savors building his own house, as well as hunting. Bruno's "St. Denis" is located in the Dordogne in southwestern France, and both tourism and sport center on its river.
But in THE DEVIL'S CAVE, the two significant features of the region are its potential for upscale lodgings, and its potential for increased tourism at the local attraction known at the Devil's Cave, where pedal boats, a café, and a souvenir shop await visitors. "Smaller chambers led off from the main space, and the eerie formations of stalagmites and stalactites had been carefully lit to justify the rather-fanciful names thay had been given, such as Our Lady's Chapel ... or Napoléon's Bedchamber."
Now, unfortunately, a dead woman found floating down the river in the heart of town -- naked -- appears to be linked to Satanism in the town, perhaps in a chamber of the cavern. As Chief of Police, Bruno investigates the possibilities, while simultaneously coping with an apparent case of spouse and child battering; a possible entry of prostitution in an element of the new tourism; emerging aspects of the murder that may have links to the past (this is France; the German occupation and the mistresses of past kings seem to have equal significance in affecting the present).
I enjoyed Bruno's steady and determined investigation, but equally enjoyed the diversions of his life: at least two women who want to spend time with him, and his tendency to cook for any guest, male or female, in his home. (They also prepare feasts for him.) Even the smallest menu item attracts a culinary complexity that American mysteries -- other than those featuring the great Nero Wolfe -- seldom indulge. As the case begins to crack open and the charges in front of the procureur are prepared, Bruno juggles phone calls and replicates a black-market-prepared dish from the war years:
Bruno rang J-J's mobile to alert him but had to leave a message. He'd wait for Fabiola's next call before informing the procureur. He finished the potatoes, peeled some shallots, set the table for two and lit the fire. Back in the kitchen, he opened a can of beer, drank half of it and then used an opener to punch some more holes in the top of the beer can. He took a large chunk of butter and began working it with a knife and mixing in the chopped garlic. He added some fresh rosemary from the garden and then began pushing the buttery mixture under the skin of the chicken as far as he could reach ... Gilles would arrive soon.
Martin Walker, himself a half-time resident of the Dordogne and a think-tank senior director, vacillates a bit in how intimate he allows the reader to become with this police investigator, whose kitchen-friendly ways are coupled with athleticism and a strong attraction for and attractiveness to women. While I found myself very familiar with Bruno's cuisine, I was less certain of how he'd respond to the stresses of the investigation, including to what extent he'd resist the political pressure. After all, a murder case isn't good for tourism! Nor is it politically wise to threaten to shut down a new architectural project that includes a sports hall for the region.
I haven't read any of the others in this series, and I will soon do so, to get a better feel for Bruno. Meanwhile, the website of this unusual author provides both a personal blog and insight into both the kitchen and the (wine) cellar of the Chief of Police: http://www.brunochiefofpolice.com.
Fans of Donna Leon's Venice mysteries will find similarities here. I recommend adding Martin Walker's mysteries to the shelf of internationals that may be growing into a full--size bookcase or even a wall, depending on how you're pursuing them. When the power of dark Scandinavian crime fiction makes you yearn afterward for a hint of fresh sunlight and easy loving mixed into your crime reading, Bruno, Chief of Police, will fit the bill.
NOTE: Interested in more insight about the author? I like the interview with Martin Walker provided here.