Thursday, 24 July 2008

Greedy Appetites

Crime Fiction tends to rely on the glutton rather than the epicure – the criminals always seem to want insatiably - wealth, power, wo/men; the detectives want more and more, almost with a ferociousness, the next clue; and the readers stuff themselves to bursting with the newest publication. Tabloid details are piled high on the table and quickly consumed.

Death in the Truffle Wood is, unashamedly, Crime Fiction.

It does, however, nod in the direction of better cooking in that it titillates the appetite – usually with a dark humour. And there are a couple of good descriptions of the sort of food that gives the French the moral high ground over the English when it comes to ‘measuring’ cuisines.

Commissaire Laviolette, is the detective Poirot might have been if Agatha Crusty had been a French intellectual instead of English ‘madam’: He likes good food, he smokes roll-ups with the class only the intelligent seem to manage, he chases women whilst he’s chasing murderers and he is, according to his bosses, none-descript – he’s given the case of the disappearing hippies because no one will notice him.

He, like his author, Pierre Magnan, is Provencal – The Province – the one that gives its inhabitants the necessary passport to condescend to town dwellers everywhere, and puts the urbane in urban.

Laviolette understands the countryside and country people in a way streetwise Phillip Marlowes in their brick and tarmac jungles will never grasp. There is almost an organic telepathy, an osmosis of thought and feeling flowing between the detective and the community. Clues are a concentration of flavours and scents rather than solid facts … animals play a key role in searching out these essentials – just as Roseline, the truffle hunting pig, searches and earns her keep rooting for what is essentially a parasitic fungus sucking away at the roots of healthy oak trees.

Those truffles, however, feature strongly in both the cooking and the plot – and act as a metaphor for the whole genre – what, after all, is it we are searching for but the rotten feeding off the strong? What is the detective in fiction but a glorified truffle pig?

That is the kind of rhetorical question you end up asking as you read – and points to an element in this book which is missing in the average pot-boiler – intellectualism.

Now, I am of Anglo-Saxon stock, and, even though I’ve denied my father and changed … I haven’t gone so far as to feel comfortable with ‘intellectualism’. Intelligence I can cope with – as long as it does the occasional prat-fall and keeps itself suitably coy – but showy intellectualism is a bit ‘continental’.

All I can say is, “Here it works,” – it is an integral part of the book and gives a dimension to the read which is refreshing to the jaded palate. I am not convinced though that the majority of Morse (who is only intelligent, despite his opera playing) and Barnaby (who is decidedly English Bumbling) fans will take much pleasure from the story.

Of the characters that people the pages there is a real French tart – not the English sticky, sweet, ‘Queen of Hearts’, jam type, but a goat cheese, onion and truffle baked Banon original; a small, lost dachshund befriended by the pig; several braces of warring brothers; and a lightening struck old cow who terrifies all around her and gets the toughest of toughs to open doors, politely, for her. There is also mention but, infuriatingly. no development of a partnership between the local baker and the local priest.

I picked up the book as an intentional anti-dote to the heavy English cooking of ‘On Chesil Beach’ – and have to say, instead of a sorbet, I got something a little more substantial – but equally invigorating.

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