Crime and cuisine make a zesty fictional pair. At least that’s what Martin Walker’s latest novel, The Shooting at Chateau Rock, demonstrates. Rarely does the police officer from a popular mystery series also have much-loved, real-life cookbooks named after him, but that’s the case with Walker’s hero, gourmet chef and crack investigator Bruno Courrèges. This new Bruno novel digresses into cookery, dog breeding, constructing a chicken coop, and other details of rural French life in Périgord, “the true home of French cuisine.” The novel also is bursting with recipes.
The Shooting at Chateau Rock begins with Bruno investigating the swindle and possible murder of a local sheep farmer. This entails elaboration of French farmers’ difficulties with EU regulations. But the case has an aspect that infuriates Bruno—neglect of the deceased farmer’s sheep, dogs, and poultry. He alerts those responsible that they’re in trouble, “trying to suppress a grin at the thought of these city slickers learning the expensive lesson that animals have rights too.” Bruno himself keeps chickens and, as a dog lover, takes his basset hound, Balzac, with him everywhere. Bruno also cogitates on war dogs, about which he is knowledgeable, having done military service. Military public relations, he recalls, emphasized tracked robots and drones, “but Bruno knew most of the troops preferred to rely on the dogs.”
The sheep farmer’s demise tangles up with the denizens of a local chateau, a former rock star, and his wife and grown children. Indeed, every event in this story binds the characters closer to each other, and also to international intrigue and criminality, such as money laundering, fraud, and human trafficking. This international skulduggery snags the interest of the elite security services in Paris, because it involves Russia, Ukraine, and their nationals purchasing Maltese and Cypriot passports—a side of the story inspired, Walker writes in the acknowledgments, by the October 2017 car bombing assassination of intrepid reporter Daphne Galizia, after her blockbuster exposes on the sale of Maltese passports.
So Bruno has his hands full. But he still has time to muse about French vineyards and wine. The novel also features a guitarist and flautist, and therefore much discussion of classical and contemporary music. But mostly the story emphasizes Bruno as totally part of and one with his community—so different from American police. Bruno starts his day in the town, with coffee and a croissant at a local eatery, then: “Bruno began his patrol of the market, greeting friends, enjoying the sight of the stalls loaded with fresh strawberries, cherries, radishes …”
Throughout, Bruno ruminates on food. “Making gazpacho was for Bruno much more important than preparing a simple soup. It marked the moment when spring had turned indisputably into summer, when he routinely ate in the open air, and the garden provided most of his meals.” And, most notably, this open-air dining is never done alone. It is social. Even though Bruno lives by himself, at every meal, friends drop in to partake, emphasizing the sociability of eating.
While the novel has its bad guys, good and evil are less starkly drawn than in many American police tales. That’s partly because good has been so humanized here, with the characters holding people to very French standards: “He likes his food and wine, so you’ll have to admit that proves he’s sound at heart.” Criminal intent is often blurred in this story, so by the novel’s end, it seems more that victims have suffered bad accidents or had really lousy luck. A Syrian refugee, who came to France via Greek camps, appears in the story not in the most law-abiding capacity, but clearly her circumstances are desperate, so Bruno inclines to forgive her.
The only real bad guy in this novel is too powerful to bring down, but he is not untouchable, as the Parisian security service discovers. Bruno’s reaction to this limited criminal justice is telling: Retribution holds no allure for him. Instead he settles for the certainty that the wicked are thwarted, as befits a police officer of such expansive humanity and the novel’s ethos of the social over the solitary, the human and animal over the machine, and life over death.