And what do we have here? The first novel in a crime series by a new French writer, Jean-Luc Bannalec? Well, not quite, for most literary journalists are agreed that M Bannelec is in fact Jörg Bong, a top German publisher who has been doing a bit of moon-lighting by creating the somewhat grumpy police detective Commissaire Dupin. One thing for sure, Bannalec/Bong has scored a hit across Europe with Death in Pont-Aven and any fan of Inspector Maigret will find Dupin a worthy successor to Georges Simenon’s fictional detective. There are even back references to Maigret for the book opens with Commissaire Dupin enjoying coffee and croissants in the Amiral Hotel, which featured in Simenon’s Yellow Dog (interestingly enough, a real restaurant in Concarneau, which to this day features a “Maigret Menu“).
I spent four very pleasant days reading this book, with memories of several visits to Brittany, the scene of this fictional crime. Brittany is a remarkable place, steeped in atmosphere with incredible beauty around every coastal corner. The pretty villages, white-sanded coves, the off-shore islands and countless fishing boats, the exquisite sea-food and tons of typical French charm . . . I could go on, but it’s enough to say that it’s a region I love and this book put me in a holiday mood despite the vicious murder of a 91-year-old man that took place in its first few pages.
The elderly hotelier found dead from a knife wound on his restaurant floor is Pierre-Louis Pennec, a stalwart of the village of Pont-Aven where he has lived all his life in the hotel founded by his grand-parents. His grand-mother founded the hotel and with her generous hospitality rapidly befriended various painters including Paul Gauguin. Summer artists retreats took place in the village and before long, the Pont-Aven school of artists, became known for their paintings of Breton interiors and landscapes, packed full of local atmosphere.
Pierre-Louis Pennec, a pillar of the community, had continued his forbears love of art and had amassed a huge collection of paintings, many of which were on display in the restaurant. Commissaire Dupin finds out that fortunately they are mainly copies, for the value of the originals would be astronomic. However, why did the hotelier install a state-of-the-art air-conditioning system to make sure that these prints were preserved for posterity?
Dupin interviews the hotel staff, beginning with Madame Lajoux, Pennec’s right-hand woman, who has been made distraught by the death of her mentor (and lover?). She provides Dupin with a potted history of the hotel and the background to the staff. We learn about Pennec’s family, who are set to inherit a considerable sum of money at his death, and also the local art society who have benefited from substantial donations from Monsieur Pennec. With Pennec being a man of such advanced years surely his days are numbered anyway? In any case it soon become clear that there are plenty of vultures hovering around Monsieur Pennec’s estate.
The charm of this book for me was the bucket-loads of Breton atmosphere. Reading this book was like going on holiday to this exceptionally beautiful part of France. The book contains plenty of local colour in the various characters Commissaire Dupin interviews. The author also likes to describe mouth-watering meals in little restaurants by the sea or hidden away up winding lanes. The whole ambience of the book is so charming that the gruesome facts of the murder seem to be lost among the descriptions of Pont-Aven’s eccentric population living in their authentic Breton interiors. This is surely an ideal book to be made into a film.
This book would never claim to be great literature but it is skilfully written in the form of a classic detective story. As head of a publishing house, obviously the author knows what he is doing and no doubt was able to draw on the best editors and advisors to make sure that no detail is incorrect or clue misplaced. Commissaire Dupin has all the characteristics of a great fictional detective with his own oblique way of working which infuriates his colleagues. I very much hope that more books follow and I think Hesperus Press are on to a winner here.
I will finish this review by including a painting which comes from Paul Gauguin’s time in Pont-Auven.