That’s the problem with being late for book reviews: if not extraordinary, the book will pale in comparison with what you read next. But I must remember and acknowledge the fun I had while I read it. It’s already good enough for an “honest-to-God” French countryside mystery.
“Implacables Vendanges” (Harsh Harvest in the Vineyards) takes place in the countryside near Villefranche-sur-Saone, the wine region of Beaujolais between Macon and Lyon. In the French imagery, it’s the home of people’s wine and sausage (cold cuts or pork cooked in every possible way), proud and slightly red-faced stout farmers who pull no punches when it comes to defending traditions (and they do have shotguns).
In a local notary’s office, the descendants of a wine farmer (all in the wine business themselves) have been called to hear their grandfather’s will, written in 1950. They are given instructions to read only the next day, on July 14th 2000. But while the small villages prepare for National day festival with traditional fireworks, the farmers get killed one by one and the letters from their ancestor disappear.
The investigator of this unpretentious mystery is Sister Blandine, a Catholic nun from a local convent, who criss-crosses the region in an antiquated car as a nurse. She is no saint by any standard, as she swears and drinks and smokes, but she tries and serves God by helping people (but she’s not one to make a fuss or be afraid of anything). Sister Blandine has a past, you see. She used to work for the police, so when crime strikes in the vineyards, she asks for the convent Reverend Mother’s permission to investigate.
Well, so much for realism. I think Philippe Bouin aims for Fred Vargas’ quirkiness and for regional exoticism, two things really successful in French mysteries right now. The recipe works, but to some extent. Sister Blandine is no competitor for Chief Inspector Adamsberg’s quiet, almost dreamy hunches. She is very action-oriented and we follow her logic step by step, so the rhythm is halting.
But Boin knows his Beaujolais alright, and it’s fun to travel through the vineyards onboard “Titine”, the restive 4L car (except for the car chase part where Sister Blandine wisely takes another, faster means of transportation by hijacking another car in the name of God). She is an endearing character, even if not 100% believable (but I may have preconceptions about Catholic sisters).
I was offered this book at Christmas by a Conservative dear friend of mine (in the French sense, not the US) and it strikes me that it is a Conservative mystery in some way that really suits her. Beaujolais, wine farmers, Catholic nuns and the police in general are by nature conservative. If you had an aristocratic journalist, small-town notary lawyer and doctor and Gaullist former members of WW2 Resistance, I guess you have a quirky panel of the French conservatism, firmly set in the past. There are mobile phones and foreign tourists just to give a contemporary touch, but it could as well still be 1950.