Written by Jean-Luc Bannalec, translated by Sorcha McDonagh — If you’re keen to discover some new French crime fiction, Jean-Luc Bannalec is a real find. Death In Pont-Aven introduces us to Commissaire Dupin, a cantankerous Parisian caffeine junkie, who polices the small Breton village of Pont-Aven, a sleepy community near the sea. Everyone knows everyone else and nothing much seems to happen. However, one morning he is dragged from his coffee and croissant to the scene of a murder at the local Central Hotel. The housekeeper has discovered the 91-year-old manager and owner Pierre-Louis Pennec dead on the restaurant floor.
The very occurrence of such a murder in such a place sends both Dupin and the local community into a state of shock and surprise. However, soon Dupin and his team come up with five viable suspects, including a rising political star, a wealthy art historian, and a long-time friend of the dead man. A mysterious break-in and then another suspicious death only deepen the mystery and as Dupin delves deeper into the lives of the victims and the suspects, he uncovers a web of secrecy, greed and silence at odds with the idyllic surrounds of Pont-Aven.
Bannalec has produced an incredibly character-driven piece, in common with his fellow French and Italian contemporaries. The curmudgeonly and self-deprecating Dupin is the real driving force throughout the book with his idiosyncratic nature, that are endlessly entertaining to the reader, and a source of deep frustration to his more straight-laced and by-the-book colleagues. Everyone knows the tropes of fictional police detectives, and Dupin wryly bemoans the absence of drug dependency, depression, neuroses and broken marriages in his own life. However, with his sharp tongue, cynical nature and a surprising fondness for penguins – yes, penguins! – he proves himself a colourful and interesting character throughout.
Obviously with the stark contrast between Dupin sophisticated backround in Paris, and the very unique and fiercely independent spirit of the Bretons, there is ample opportunity for some earthy humour. Likewise, Bannalec captures perfectly the claustrophobic feel of this small town, but also paints a majestic picture of the overlapping communities both rural and shore-dwelling, and the contrasting lives and mind-sets of the two communities within Brittany.
Fuelled by murder, art forgeries, family resentments and scheming neighbours, the plot is engaging from the start. Injected with Bannalec’s research into the links between the region and some France’s greatest painters, the initial murder mystery is fleshed out and strengthened not only by the careful disguising of the real murderer by a series of red herrings, but by the carefully placed re-imagining of this former community of artists. Along with Dupin, I was completely wrong-footed throughout as potential suspects came to the fore, all with strong motives for their possible involvement in murder and theft.
Death in Pont-Aven is a smart and utterly entertaining read. It its centre is a wonderfully empathetic and engaging detective whose wry humour, fixed ways and generally grumpy demeanour, drive the action and interest. His seemingly haphazard form of detection – constantly interrupted by coffee breaks – frustrate and bemuse both colleagues and potential suspects alike. Compounded by an intriguing and interesting murder plot that really brings the most pernicious aspects of this small community to the fore, it’s a highly satisfying read.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars