Written by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen, translated by Sally Pane — The Winemaker Detective series from Le French Book continues here and this time we’re in the Cognac region. As the heirs to one of the oldest family-run Cognac estates, the Lavoisier, face a hostile takeover by Chinese investors. Renowned Anglo-French wine expert Benjamin Cooker and his assistant Virgile (irresistable to women of a certain age) are called in to audit the books. What they find in this area in the West of France, however, is a hotbed of intrigue, family feuds, glamorous femmes fatales and lies.
When one of the heirs is found drowned, it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out that it’s not an accident or suicide, but murder. Inevitably, Benjamin and Virgile get involved in the investigation. We start to question Benjamin’s judgement, however, as he accidentally meets a former girlfriend from his student days and becomes rather partial to her attentions, while Virgile is not immune to the charms of the last remaining Lavoisier heir.
At the time the story was written in the 2004, the French wine industry was sliding into recession, and the Armagnac/Cognac area was particularly hard hit. So the story of foreign investment and selling out rings very true. However, you do not read the Winemaker Detective series for its realism or social commentary. This is the fifth book by the writing duo to be translated by Le French Book, and each is set in a different wine-producing region of France. Like the previous books in the series, it is a quick, pleasant read, a good introduction to the country’s culinary charms and regional beauty. In this case, it’s also a primer in the art and science of blending aged wines to produce fine cognacs.
The setting is what makes the charm of this series – and it’s always convincingly described, appealing to all senses. The plot itself feels a little too thin: I’d have liked to find out more about the main characers and their motivation. Perhaps the pace at which the authors churn out these books (on average four a year) doesn’t work in their favour, but they also work as film scripts for a very popular TV series in France.
Packed with drama and wine-related knowledge, what keeps this from descending into a rural mayhem of cosiness of the long-running Midsomer Murders series on British TV is that dash of realism. In this instance, however, I could have done with a little less love interest and a bit more mystery.
It remains, however, a delightful way to while away a winter afternoon, reading in front of an open fireplace, glass of brandy in your hand.
Le French Book
CFL Rating: 3 Stars