The Third France

LESSONS FROM LITERATURE

MICHAEL MANDELBAUM, The American Interest, published on: September 25, 2018 

The “Bruno” detective novels of Martin Walker showcase the enduring appeal of French village life in the new world of the 21st century.

“Omnia Gallia in tres partes divisa est”—all of Gaul is divided into three parts—is the opening line of Caesar’s Commentary on the Gallic Wars, which introduced several generations of Americans to the study of the Latin language. Ancient Gaul’s 21st-century successor, modern France, similarly divides into three parts: Paris, the political, economic, and cultural capital, the city of light with its monumental buildings and spectacular parks and gardens; the provincial cities—Marseille and Nice in the south, Bordeaux in the west, Lyon in the east and Lille in the north; and rural France with its many villages, which the French sometimes call “la France profonde.” It is in this third France, in the southwest region known as the Périgord, in the fictional but realistic village of St. Denis, that Martin Walker has set his splendid series of mystery novels, with the local policeman, Benoit “Bruno” Courrèges, at their center. A Taste for Vengeance, published this spring, is the eleventh in the series.

Walker, a former journalist for the English newspaper The Guardian and the author of several well-received works of non-fiction, spends part of each year in Washington, DC and part in the region about which he writes. His works of fiction are examples of what the French call romans policiers—detective novels—of a very high order: deftly plotted, gracefully written, with compelling characters and surprising twists at the end. The books, however, offer the reader more than suspense: They provide a vivid portrait of the French countryside, the beating heart of the French nation, in the new world of the 21st century.

In Bruno, an army veteran who served in the Balkans during the war in the 1990s, went through police training, and was assigned to St. Denis, the author has created a very appealing character. Bruno lives alone just outside the village in a house he restored himself, surrounded by his vegetable garden, his chickens and ducks, and his cockerel, Blanco, whose familiar cocoricu (French for “cock-a-doodle-do”) wakes him in the morning. In addition to his official duties he serves as the volunteer tennis instructor and rugby coach for the children of St. Denis. During the course of the series he develops several romantic attachments but the great love of his life, Isabelle, a fellow law enforcement professional, while making periodic visits, has chosen to pursue a high-flying career in Paris rather than settling down with him in St. Denis. Unlike the detectives created by British authors—Sherlock Holmes, for example, and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple—Bruno is not an eccentric. He’s an average Frenchman, with above-average shrewdness and courage. Unlike his fictional Scandinavian counterparts, he’s gregarious and happy, not dour and tormented.

In following his adventures the reader encounters both the continuities and the changes in the way of life of the third France. What remains unchanged is the strong sense of community among the villagers, of the kind that has no doubt marked rural communities everywhere since they came into existence with the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago. The ties among the inhabitants of St. Denis, the kind that tend to dissolve when people move to the cities, remain strong. Bruno has no living blood relatives but his friends in the village become his extended family: the mayor, to whom he reports; the baron, a local landowner and fellow army veteran; the village doctor and the science teacher at the local school (both women); and, not least, his faithful Basset hound, Balzac.

The powerful sense of community shapes the way Bruno does his job. Among the citizens of St. Denis he almost never resorts to coercion, deploying instead friendly persuasion. He functions less as the cop on the beat than as a social worker and guidance counselor. To be sure, he and his colleagues in law enforcement depend on the methods of electronic communication that have spread around the world, including to rural France. The Internet is an important tool of investigation in St. Denis, as it is elsewhere. Moreover, dealing with armed outsiders often requires the use of force, and some of the novels climax in dramatic gun battles: Bruno is no pacifist.

In solving crimes and dealing with trouble of all kind, however, he relies heavily on his personal network. He advises a new police officer in a neighboring village to “make a courtesy call to every house in your commune at least once a year and leave each of them your card with your mobile phone number. Make a note of birthdays and weddings and baptisms and wish people well. Make yourself into a friendly fixture of everyone’s life and find some way to have regular involvements with all the kids,” as Bruno does with his tennis lessons.

Another familiar theme of village life recurs in the Bruno novels: the impulse to keep the outside world at bay, to resist the intrusion of distant authorities. For St. Denis, those authorities reside in Paris, the seat of France’s famously centralized and powerful national government. The mayor is consistently re-elected to his post in no small part because he is well-connected in the capital and adept at defending the village’s interests there. Bruno himself maintains cordial if wary relations with his counterparts at various levels of the French law enforcement bureaucracy. The series furnishes a kind of tutorial in how that bureaucracy works.

In recent decades another external force with which the village has to contend has become important: the European Union (EU), with its headquarters in Brussels. The European Union has brought major benefits to St. Denis: grants for economic development and cultural preservation; an influx of tourists, making tourism rather than agriculture the village’s leading industry; and some non-French Europeans who settle there and become part of the community. On the other hand, Brussels also issues meddlesome regulations on a wide range of activities, some of which contradict the village’s long-standing traditions and that Bruno must find ways to circumvent.

Yet another venerable feature of French village life found in the Bruno novels is the significance of food and wine, which is a major theme in each of the 11 books. A Hollywood pitch for the series might describe it as “Maigret (Georges Simenon’s famous Parisian detective) meets Julia Child.” An enthusiastic and skillful chef, Bruno enjoys cooking for his friends. Walker describes the preparation of meals, by Bruno and others, with the detail and precision found in cookbooks. (His wife, Julia Watson, is in fact a food writer.) The dishes, invariably using local ingredients, range from simple peasant fare to, in A Taste for Vengeance, a lunch at a Périgord restaurant with a Michelin star.

While offering a guide to the food of the region and a description of the customs and folkways of 21st-century village life there, the Bruno books remain, first and foremost, mysteries, whose plots involve solving crimes. In many of them the crime has its roots in French history.

History looms larger in Europe than in the United States, and in no European country does it weigh more heavily than in France. To be sure, the French nation has a glorious history. France was the dominant power in Europe and the vanguard of Western civilization from the 17th century through the Napoleonic era; but the country also has a considerably less glorious recent past. In World War II France suffered defeat and occupation at the hands of Germany, which gave rise to a small but determined French resistance. After 1945 the French fought and lost two colonial wars, in Indochina in the 1950s and Algeria in the 1960s. From these unhappy experiences spring a number of the crimes that Bruno has to solve. For France in general, and the St. Denis of Martin Walker’s novels in particular, a line from one of William Faulkner’s characters holds true: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

As those historical episodes become more distant in time, it becomes more difficult to devise plots in which the memory of them animates events in the second decade of the 21st century. Accordingly, the source of trouble in A Taste for Vengeance turns out to be a place that is for Great Britain the equivalent of Indochina and Algeria, but where the British experience is both older and more recent: Ireland.

Through the descriptions of Bruno’s daily rounds, of his relations with his friends, and of the vicissitudes of social and political life in St. Denis, the novels give the reader a vivid picture of everyday life in rural France. While Martin Walker’s books are entertainments, not works of philosophy or history, from the picture he paints a lesson emerges: Crimes, criminals, wars, and conquerors come and go, but the pleasures of the third France, the French countryside, endure.

Published on: September 25, 2018 

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, a member of the Editorial Board of The American Interest, and the author of Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era (Oxford University Press).