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Friday, July 24, 2015

Death in Brittany by Jean-Luc Bannalec

Minotaur Books, 320 pages, $24.99 (c2012, US Ed. 2015), translated from German by Sorcha McDonagh

I never mind when Hercule Poirot cogitates with his little grey cells, murmurs a French phrase or two (“Mais oui, Hastings!”), and keeps mum. I never mind when Poirot doesn’t reveal his deductions and thoughts to Hastings or Miss Lemon and instead presents all with his impeccable reasoning at the end. Ah, yes, I think to myself, of course.

Jean-Luc Bannalec’s hero, the imperious Commissaire Georges Dupin, doesn’t have Poirot’s brio and doesn’t quite pull off the wait-and-see game as well as Poirot. Dupin abruptly hangs up on his assistants after demanding six impossible things before breakfast, goes for long, aimless walks in the woods or by the sea to think, often feels faint with hunger (or gasping for his third, fourth, fifth cup of coffee), turns off his phone to avoid his assistants and superiors, and is not good at sharing information. Despite (or perhaps because of) his recalcitrant protagonist, Bannalec does have a winner in his series set in Brittany. “Death in Brittany” is the only book by Bannalec, German author Jörg Bong’s pseudonym, to be translated into English so far. There are three more available only in German.

Dupin was declared persona non grata as a policeman in Paris and so he decamped to Brittany, where he has been based in Concarneau in the Finistère. Bannalec does descriptive justice to this ancient and beautiful land. The Breton-born regard anyone not born there as newcomers. Newcomer Dupin has only been in the area for three years and has a double-strike against him as well: “Parisians are the only people whom Bretons consider to be true outsiders.” Nevertheless, Dupin bears his shame well. He enjoys the food, the scenery, the sounds, the air, and, although he cannot pronounce their Breton names, the people.

When a respected hotelier is murdered in the nearby town of Pont-Aven and the local policeman is on vacation, the burden falls to Dupin to solve the case. Working in his private bubble, Dupin writes in his notebook, orders his underlings around, and avoids keeping everyone abreast of his theories. As annoying as everyone finds him, he has his moments of gestalt that keep others in brief abeyance while he figures out what is out-of-place at the crime scene or in his interviews with suspects.

Dupin is depicted fairly well, his associates less so. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of difference between policemen Le Ber and Labat, except that Dupin cannot easily tolerate Labat. In the beginning Labat is described as “small-minded, unbearably keen and syncophantic, yet also driven by ambition.” Le Ber is “precise, quick, intelligent.” However, for all intents and purposes in the rest of the book, they are interchangeable.

“Death in Brittany” also deals with the artists who were inspired by the area almost a century and a half earlier, most notably Paul Gauguin. Bannalec does a wonderful job of weaving that into the story.

Dupin is not a ball of lovable and fuzzy; he’s often terse, inarticulate, and rude, but it’s not necessary to love the protagonist to enjoy the story. Bring on the next book!

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