Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. A great deal of crime fiction is about murder and its investigation. And that makes sense; murder is a powerful subject and it’s not surprising that readers are interested in the ‘who, how and why’ of a murder case. But not all crimes are murder, and it’s sometimes interesting to take a look at a crime novel that doesn’t focus on a murder. Let’s do that today and turn the spotlight on Jean-Pierre Alaux and Nöel Balen’s Treachery in Bordeaux, the first in their Winemaker Detective Series.
As the novel begins, noted winemaker and oenologist Benjamin Cooker gets a new young assistant Virgile Lanssien. There’s a little awkwardness on both sides at first. Lanssien is anxious about impressing such a well-known expert, and Cooker feels the need to be sure that Lanssien is all that he seems to be: a smart young man with a natural gift for winemaking and wine culture. They’re soon comfortable with each other though, and Lanssien learns that Cooker has, if you will, a sort of side interest in detection.
This comes out when Cooker and Lanssien visit Denis Maissepain, who owns the Château Les Moniales Haut-Brion. Les Moniales is not only a renowned producer of fine wine, but also it’s the last vineyard in Bordeaux. Maissepain is upset because several barrels of the estate wines have been contaminated by brettanomyces, a yeast-like spore that can ruin wine. On the surface of it, that might not seem like such a disaster, but as any vintner can tell you, even a small amount of bad wine can destroy a vineyard’s reputation. And what’s worse, this kind of contamination spreads very quickly, so that the entire harvest is now at risk of being ruined.
Cooker already knows, and Lanssien learns, that Maissepain is extremely careful with regard to the winemaking process. So this is most definitely not a case of negligence on his part. And that suggests immediately that someone’s trying to sabotage Les Moniales. One obvious possibility is a rival winemaker, and Cooker, Lanssien and Maissepain acknowledge that. But in general the vintners in the Bordeaux region are more collegial than that. They may be rivals in some ways, but they also all love fine wine and they salute the vintner who creates it. What’s more, it’s not likely that other local vintners would want that kind of contamination anywhere near their own farms.
Cooker and Lanssien begin to look into the case more deeply. With help from Cooker’s biological testing expert Alexandrine de la Palussière, they find out exactly how the wine got contaminated. And with other clues they get, they’re able to find out who would have wanted to ruin Les Moniales.
You might not think of a bad bottle of wine as such a dreadful thing (although of course it’s never pleasant), but to Maissepain, this is a true disaster. It’s not an overstatement to say that this contamination threatens his business, his reputation and his way of life. And it’s even worse to know that someone’s done this intentionally. So there’s a real thread of tension as Cooker and Lanssien try to find out who’s responsible while Massepain does as much as he can to contain the problem to four barrels. That tension is a good reminder that this is a crime novel.
As the two sleuths go about their work, we learn a great deal about wine making and preparing wine for the market. That background is an extremely important element in this novel Readers who enjoy wine will be really pleased I think at going ‘behind the scenes’ in that way. And even if you’re not a wine drinker, it’s an interesting look at the life of a vintner.
The novel also has a strong sense of place. The story takes place in the Bordeaux region of France, and the authors place the reader there very early in the novel. Here’s a description of the Moniales manor house:
‘It was surrounded by rows of grapevines and dominated the landscape without arrogance. The château was not huge, but the balance of its slate roof, the curve of its front steps and the proportions of its façade, with wings that had white Doric columns on both sides, gave the building elegance. A creek called the Peugue flowed at the foot of the knoll, ending among the loose moss-covered cobblestones of a fountain. A small baroque chapel, built in the 17th century, with a pink-marble incrusted pediment, stood in the shade of a chestnut tree.’
This is France besides Paris, if I can put it that way. And tied in with that sense of place is a thread of tension between the traditional country life of wine making, small towns and a leisurely pace of life on the one hand, and the increasing pressure from development, economic growth and tourism on the other.
The pace of the story is in line with the setting. There’s certainly action and the story doesn’t lag, but the pace is not ‘thriller-like.’ And readers who dislike violence in their novels will be pleased to know that there isn’t any in this story.
The character of the half English/half French Benjamin Cooker is an important element in this story too. He’s a true expert on grapes, wines and wine making, but he’s not arrogant. In fact, he’s quite anxious in this novel about a writing project that he’s doing. He’s not at all perfect, but he’s happily married to his wife Elisabeth and has a good relationship with their daughter Margaux, who lives in New York. Readers who prefer their sleuths to have traumatic personal issues to deal with will be disappointed. That said though, it is very refreshing to have a sleuth who’s interesting, intelligent, and not beset by personal demons. It’s not hard at all to be on his side and Lanssien’s as they search for the saboteur.
There’s a gentle sort of humour in the novel too. For example, Lanssien notices very quickly that Alexandrine de la Palussière is a good-looking woman. Cooker sees that his assistant has noticed her and what passes between them about it is funny. That humour, and the sense of place and culture, are effectively conveyed through Anne Trager’s translation. The novel has been rendered into American English, so readers who prefer other dialects will notice that. Trager’s translation captures the Bordeaux culture, the winemaking life and the nuances of interactions among the characters.
Treachery in Bordeaux is an intimate look at the making of fine wine and the life the Bordeaux winemakers behind all of those labels. It’s a story of what happens when that lifestyle is threatened, too. The novel features a likeable pair of protagonists and a solution that makes sense and is arrived at credibly. But what’s your view? Have you read Treachery in Bordeaux? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 19 August/Tuesday 20 August – The Messenger of Athens – Anne Zouroudi
Monday 26 August/Tuesday 27 August – Death at the President’s Lodging – Michael Innes
Monday 2 September/Tuesday 3 September – Sun Storm (AKA The Savage Altar) – Åsa Larsson