I was getting the fears — that one of those unaccountable reading blocks was impending. If so, the only known remedy is a small delay until the itch needed scratching, and then reach for one of the usual standbys (in a really bad episode, it’s Anthony Hope).
The precise circumstance was finishing Tim Shipman’s Fall Out, the inevitable continuation of his All Out War. Between the two, there’s a detailed account — mainly from Shipman’s excellent contacts in the Tory Party, of how Britain has been sucked into the ultimate slough of despond by the whole #Brexit fantasy. If it wasn’t such a national tragedy, or if one was observing from a safe, transoceanic distance, it would be Opéra bouffe, with racy, uplifting Offenbach carolling. Perhaps a later generation will see it like that; but we have to live it.
My usual practice would be to look for a light, uplifting novel. Indeed, I had laid in some potential candidates.
I suspect they may have to wait, for something else came to hand.
Welcome, Bruno, Chief of Police
Why did nobody tell me?
First thought, surely not same guy as The Cold War? To some surprise, it is he.
Walker is (one assumes) still mainly based in Washington DC, but has his bolt-hole in the Dordogne. Somewhere before the Vézère joins the Dordogne, we find the fictional St-Denis, where Bruno keeps the peace. It’s limestone country, with caves in the cliffs which brood over the river, and provide ample opportunity for any amount of mayhem.
I have very pleasant memories of the Vézère: so here they come.
We had dumped the elder two daughters on their grandmother, while the third would appear the following January. We drove down through France, in search of a few days sun-and-unsobriety. We got torrential rain, and — when the rain desisted — glowering cloud and mists. So we headed further south. By the time we reached Angoulême, we would have been brassed-off, had the brass not been so tarnished by weather. At least it was warmer. So we left the bedroom shutters open, and headed to the hotel dining room for sustenance and liquid refreshment. After which we bedded down. Mistake.
The open shutters had admitted mosquitos, which soon made their … Bzzt … zap … marks.
Fortunately I had to hand the obvious remedy: a crunched copy of the Daily Telegraph. Not, by any stretch my usual poison, but acquired as a left-over from the Bentley Boys hotel (now deceased) in Le Mans — there’s a story there, as well: Malcolm ‘fixing’ the wind-up rear window of the decade-old Redfellow wagon (hence the clip at the top of this post), while all the glossy new gear Jaguars and Rovers snootily sniffed, sneered and departed.
So, with this trusty Torygraph sports section (that’s significant in what follows) vorpal sword in hand, I took on the manxsome foes. And rested from my successful effort. Until the morning light.
What was revealed was a somewhat altered wallpaper, splattered with blood-charged bugs. We breakfasted, and made our prompt adieus.
And then something wonderful.
Suddenly the clouds had cleared. It was all benign, sunny and we were blithe.
We rounded a bend, and there was the perfect lunchery. We stopped, ate, and shared
beakers of the warm south!
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene.
The waitress wanted from us just one favour: the news section of that Daily Telegraph. For it featured the wedding of Charles Windsor to the virginal Lady Diana Spencer. Which dates the whole business around the 1st of August 1981.
Back to the main event.
Here is Martin Walker’s opening paragraph:
On a bright May morning, so early that the last of the mist was still lingering low over a bend in the Vézère River, a white van drew to a halt on the ridge that overlooked the small French town. A man climbed out, strode to the edge of the road and stretched mightily as he admired the familiar view of St. Denis. The town emerged from the lush green of the trees and meadows like a tumbled heap of treasure; the golden stone of the buildings, the ruby red tiles of the rooftops and the silver curve of the river running through it. The houses clustered down the slope and around the main square of the Hôtel de Ville where the council chamber, its Mairie, and the office of the town’s own policeman perched above the thick stone columns that framed the covered market. The grime of three centuries only lately scrubbed away, its honey-colored stone glowed richly in the morning sun.
The man is:
Benoît Courrèges, chief of police for the small commune of St. Denis and its 2,900 souls, and universally known as Bruno…
He has two tasks in mind: to frustrate:
the inspectors who were charged with enforcing E.U. hygiene rules on the markets of France. Hygiene was all very well, but the locals of St. Denis had been making their cheeses and their pâté de foie gras and their rillettes de pore for centuries before the E.U. even existed, and did not take kindly to foreign bureaucrats telling them what they could and could not sell …
and to oversee the Liberation Day celebration. That gives Walker space to introduce other characters:
Bruno had posted the ROUTE BARREE signs to block the side road and ensured that the floral wreaths had been delivered. He had donned his tie and polished his shoes and the peak of his cap. He had warned the old men in both cafés that the time was approaching and had brought up the flags from the cellar beneath the Mairie. The mayor himself stood waiting, the sash of office across his chest and the little red rosette of the Légion d’honneur in his lapel. The gendarmes were holding up the impatient traffic, while housewives kept asking when they could cross the road, grumbling that their bags were getting heavy and that they had to get lunch on the table.
Jean-Pierre of the bicycle shop carried the Tricolor and his enemy Bachelot held the flag that bore the cross of Lorraine, the emblem of General de Gaulle and Free France. Marie-Louise, who as a young girl had served as a courier for one of the Resistance groups and who had been taken off to Ravensbrück concentration camp and somehow survived, had the flag of St. Denis. Montsouris, the only communist council member of the town, carried a smaller flag of the Soviet Union, acknowledging one of France’s wartime allies, and Monsieur Jackson held the flag of another ally, his native Britain. A retired schoolteacher, he had come to spend his declining years with his daughter, who had married Pascal of the local insurance office. Jackson had been an eighteen-year-old recruit in the last weeks of war in 1945 and was thus a fellow combatant, entitled to share the honor of the victory parade. Bruno was privately proud to have arranged this. One day, Bruno told himself, he would find a real American, but this time young Karim, as the star of the rugby team, carried the Stars and Stripes.
By now I am hooked.
There’s even better news: this is the first of a baker’s dozen in the series.
Should get me through July.