Le French Book, 144 pages, c2004
Translated by Anne Trager
“Treachery in Bordeaux” is the first in “The Winemaker Detective Series,” begun in 2004. It looks as though ten of them have been translated into English and perhaps another fifteen have not. The winemaker part flourishes in the book, the mystery part … is slight. There is no murder. The mystery is about whether the processing of a vineyard’s grapes has been sabotaged.
Benjamin Cooker is a half-Brit, half-French resident of the larger Bordeaux region. He is a tastemaker, as it were, as a wine expert and published critic of France’s wine. He is also a wine “doctor,” examining problems with the various winemaking processes and helping vineyard owners and winemakers to fix them. Although he is sometimes also a vintner, Cooker is meticulously independent and fair. One of his good friends is an vineyard owner and winemaker, but his friendship would never translate into a prejudiced review.
Cooker prides himself on his judgment of the various vintages, although he is beset by insecurities about that judgment. He is a fifty-year-old eccentric and a sensualist at heart. He holds not just an intense appreciation of wine, but also a fondness for good food (mostly cooked by his beloved wife, Elisabeth), an artistic view of the beautiful countryside in which he lives, and a love of art depicting all things wine. Unfortunately, that countryside is falling prey to developers building shoddy homes for people who want the country lifestyle and who are inadvertently precipitating the destruction of that world. Some of the famous vineyards have been sold and turned into housing developments.
It’s hard not to learn a lot about wine, and I admit to having my attention wander during some of the denser paragraphs. However, that is also the major attraction to me. Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen go willing and often into the intricacies of making wine and the history of wine-making in the Bordeaux region. I mostly enjoy expert exposition in a mystery, and I enjoy it here.
This is a short book by today’s standards, and it is mercifully so. The mystery is succinctly stated after a bit of charming meandering, and towards the end, the solution pops up in its proper place. Et voilà, Cooker and his new assistant, Virgile Lanssien, can head off into the succulent sunset where dinner awaits.
This book is definitely not for everybody, especially since the who, what, when, where, why must have been hidden under a cork somewhere. But I was charmed. I believe Cooker and Lanssien’s later adventures will be equally as educational and quaint.