It’s the end of July, the height of the summer season. Many of us have emotional baggage — those suitcases and backpacks that finally accept they won’t be going anywhere this summer. But we can still escape into other worlds via mysteries with intriguing locales.
This month’s episode of Summer Reads features mysteries in locales so enticing, the setting becomes as much a character as the perpetrator and the detective.
Bruno, Chief of Police
The Bruno, Chief of Police series introduces Benoît Courrêges, henceforth referred to as Bruno, the Police Municipale in the fictional village of St. Denis within the Périgord region of southern France.
Bruno is an endearing character, a veteran of the French Army wounded in Sarajevo who relocates to St. Denis and embraces its way of life. He’s a simple man who likes good food and wine. He loves the village and its people. Bruno cooks, hunts, and occasionally solves a crime.
Writer Martin Walker, who lives in the Périgord region brings it to life, as in this sampling from The Dark Vineyard:
“Bruno took the familiar road past the railway bridge and along the path to Pamela’s home. It was one of his favorite spots in the region; the familiar mixture of the honey-colored stone and the dark red roof tiles, the crushed chalk casting of the courtyard and the lush greens of garden and countryside had come together here in a particularly satisfying harmony. Perhaps it was the way the hill curled down to nestle the property like jewel in its setting, or the contrast between the shielding stand of tall poles and the low cluster of buildings.”
My mind’s eye sees everything clearly, and Walker’s description becomes a tiny escape from reality.
Bruno, Chief of Police: A Mystery of the French Countryside (2009) is the first book in the series. Readers meet Bruno who has to solve the murder of an elderly North African veteran of World War II, but along the way there is food to prepare and enjoy, chickens to feed, a hunting dog named Gigi, and a hint of romance with a female detective from Paris.
Book number 2, The Dark Vineyard (2010), moves beyond murder to arson and intrigue among members of a wine making family. One branch wants to buy up the local vineyards; the other wants revenge. And there are two suspicious deaths. Bruno goes about his duties with curiosity about the other participants. The American winemaker, the Canadian student of wine who isn’t who she seems to be, and the handsome young man who grew up on the local Commune. And there’s still time for Bruno to prepare a sensual dinner that features a truffle omelette and grilled bécasses with suitable wine pairings.
There are 15 books in the Bruno series, enough provide me with armchair escape until at least September.
Chen Su Lin Investigates
If you want a break from the beauties of Périgord, a mystery set in Singapore may just do the trick. Author Ovidia Yu’s cozy Colonial Crime Series takes readers to 1936 Singapore where they meet sixteen-year-old Chen Su Lin, a young woman determined not to be a bride in an arranged marriage. In the first book of the series, Chief Inspector Thomas LeFroy agrees to employ Chen Su Lin as his assistant and housekeeper, thus forging what will become an efficient “detecting relationship.”
The Frangipani Tree Mystery (2017) opens with an unexplained death.Why did the nanny in the governor’s household fall to her death through the branches of a frangipani tree?
Chief Inspector Thomas LeFroy doesn’t know. A chain of events places Chen Su Lin as the new nanny in the household. And the investigation begins.
Yu sprinkles her story with observations about Singaporean culture, such as, “A Singaporean never missed the chance to gamble.”
And this, “The frangipani tree, so the verse says, is the essence of graveyards, growing on the blood and bones of dead bodies. It is considered bad luck and some people, especially the older ones, avoid its flowers because it is said their lovely fragrance comes from unhappy female spirits. . . . Europeans had their own superstitions, like wearing shoes all the time, even indoors, and not eating the heads of fish or the feet of chickens. But they obviously didn’t mind tree spirits. Why else would they have planted so many frangipani trees around Government House?”
In The Betel Tree Mystery (2018), Chen Su Lin has become Inspector LeFroy’s secretarial assistant and works in the new Detective and Intelligence Unit when Victor Glossop is found dead at the Farquhar Hotel. Chen Su Lin wouldn’t normally enter such a place “but a dead body makes any hotel irresistible.”
Glossop’s American fiancee Nichole Covington falls under suspicion. Chen Su Lin becomes part of the afflicted household, but her narrative takes time for a slight detour to describe the tea room of the Farquhar Hotel as a “cheerful, airy space with light metalwork chairs set round tables covered with white line. The open balcony faced the sea, which could be glimpsed between gigantic palm trees and jasmine and bougainvillea bushes. Even the gentle flapping of the rattan screens was regular and soothing.”
I imagine the Farquhar Hotel Chen Su Lin visited looked something like this 1932 picture of Raffles Hotel.
There are four books in Yu’s Colonial Crime Series, the most recent published this year.
A well-written book takes the reader outside of herself. In times like these when it is difficult to travel, a mystery in an exotic setting gives a bonus pleasure beyond the enjoyment of a good story by either evoking fond memories or inspiring visions of future travel. It seems like this is a good time join Inspector Bruno as he indulges in a glass of wine and contemplates the view.
Boy reading a book decorates the roofline of a building on Amatu Bela Street in Live Square in Riga, Latvia. Photo by Author.
The River Dordogne in Perigord, France, near Castelnaud-la-Chapelle by Luc Viatour.
The entrance of Raffles Hotel, Singapore, 1932 from the Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures.
Glass of red wine with a candle. Public Domain.
Bruno, Chief of Police. Martin Walker’s website.
Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.
Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.