Sunday, October 04, 2015

"a Bruno, Chief of Police novel"

The book "The Patriach" was picked up a few weeks ago after seeing an advertisement for Martin Walker's novels in the New York Times Book Review Section.  Yeah, that was ill-advised as even trusting the actual reviews is difficult to do, and trusting an advertisement is really just a complete guess. What attracted was the fact that this book was set in the Dordogne, had a lead character that was a small town detective in that area, and some of each story was built around the customs and food of that area of France.

Why was that attractive?  Readers of ENS know that two entertaining and favorite book series here are Donna Leon's mysteries set in Venice, the Commissario Brunetti tales, and Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano books set in Sicily.  Food and culture always have a place in these books, as well as having as close to first rate characters that there could be in this genre of fiction.

Martin Walker has written eight of these Bruno books, as well as multiple non-fiction books about foreign policy that reflect his career, so his knowledge is based on the first hand reporting that he once did as well as where he lives for half of each year now.  "The Patriach" was entertaining enough, and the book was for the most part not at all taxing.  It meant a needed quick break from reading a book that is much more demanding.

In comparing the book to the Leon and Camilleri ones, a notable and not positive aspect is that there is zero humor in this Bruno book.  Maybe it is not representative of the others and it is unlikely that will be discovered here.  It is clear that Walker has created a series that is based on the template of the others but he does not have a light touch.  The main characters in the other books being compared are compelling in the humanity and multi-faceted nature of the protagonists.  It is entirely possible to not like Bruno some of the time, and he is certainly not as interesting.

The book is also a classic of the model of mystery books where everything comes together at the end quickly, brutally, and in a way that could not be anticipated, so what's the fun of it being a mystery.
The other aspect of the book is that Walker shows off his knowledge of foreign policy history, which he is certainly in command of, but if that history is already known by the reader and, as the book offers no added insight, it at times feels somewhat boring.

For some readers the history may well be new and interesting reading, and the descriptions of the food and the small town culture can be charming, but here more interesting characters and more deft writing is needed.  Each to his own.  Others may seriously like Walker's books, as they must since his publisher Knopf has published eight of them and there is certainly more to come.

Leon and Camilleri are simply far better and they became staples here 15 years ago.  The comparisons are too strong.  Others are free to differ.


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