The Coldest Case by Martin Walker: Richly descriptive and captivating story - book review -

A cold case starts to burn brightly again in the heat of a French summer after a seasoned detective attends a museum exhibition on the facial reconstruction of ancient skulls.

Wednesday, 26th May 2021, 12:30 pm
The Coldest Case

Will the creation of a lifelike head finally lead the police to discover the name – and possibly the killer – of a young man whose body was found in a woodland stream thirty years ago?

The considerable sleuthing talents of Lieutenant Bruno Courrèges are tested to the limit in the fourteenth book of Martin Walker’s enchanting, French-flavoured Dordogne series which stars an astute, epicurean detective with a taste for food, vin rouge… and crime.

Lovers of clever mysteries, social and political history, stunning scenery, excellent cuisine, and the very best of French wines have enjoyed sharing the past twelve years with the smart, likeable Bruno in Walker’s exceptionally entertaining novels.

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Walker is a prize-winning historian and journalist who spends most of his time in the Périgord region – the lush, gastronomic heartland of France – and has mastered the fine art of harnessing intriguing murder mysteries with paeans to his adopted country’s rich history, landscape and culture to serve up stories with an addictive brand of Gallic charm.

At the heart of these witty, wonderful novels is the laidback Bruno, a bon viveur with a brain as discerning as his palate… a man who can crack crime in the fictional settlement of St Denis whilst cracking open a bottle of the best Château Bélingard.

In his fourteenth mystery, we meet Bruno on a visit to the famous pre-history museum in nearby Les Eyzies where he is much taken with the amazing heads on show which have been expertly reconstructed from ancient skulls.

For thirty years, Bruno’s boss, Chief of Detectives Jean-Jacques Jalipeau, known as J-J, has been obsessed with his first case. It was never solved and Bruno knows that this failure continues to haunt the chief.

A young male body was found in the woods near St Denis but never identified and since then J-J, who was then a young detective working on his first case, has kept a photograph of the skull – nicknamed ‘Oscar’ – as a memento mori.

Bruno suggests performing a similar reconstruction on Oscar as a first step towards at last identifying him and an expert is duly hired to start the work while the search for Oscar’s killer begins again in earnest.

But learning the identity of the murder victim is only the start. The investigation soon leads Bruno to a reclusive vintner, Henri Bazaine, whose education at a vocational school in a former Communist region has raised some eyebrows.

An inquiry into the defunct school turns up shadowy reports of possible connections and funding from the Stasi, the repressive police agency of the former East Germany. The increasingly strange case is further complicated when Parisian bureaucrats get involved, hinting that essential diplomatic relations might be at stake.

And to make matters even worse, the Dordogne is suffering from an intense summer drought that is sparking fires across the region. Can Bruno keep a cool head through it all and find the murderer?

As Bruno untangles a mystery reaching far beyond the heat-soaked vineyards of the Dordogne, he still has time to enjoy his eclectic lifestyle in idyllic St Denis. And what’s more, his pedigree basset, Balzac, whose ancestry dates back more than three centuries, is about to become a father to a litter of pups courtesy of the beauteous hound Diane de Poitiers.

Once again, Walker’s richly descriptive and captivating story enables readers to share quality time with Bruno’s warm and sociable milieu whilst dining out on the culinary crime-buster’s sumptuous Périgordian meals, all accompanied by plentiful side-helpings of crime, intrigue and mystery.

A taste of French food and culture for those starved of the real thing!

(Quercus, hardback, £18.99)