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Book review: ‘Death in Brittany,’ Jean-Luc Bannalec

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As its title suggests, “Death in Brittany” is a murder-mystery novel set in seaside France. And just like its title, the book lacks a creative spark. “Brittany” is the latest publication from Jean-Luc Bannalec (an alias heavily suspected to be the pseudonym of German publisher Jörg Bong).

Falling prey to the cliches of the crime genre, “Brittany” concerns murder, theft, and secrecy. Though an easy read with a pleasant setting and admirable prose, the book just doesn’t grab you like it should. It’s a soft thriller, lacking true excitement.

In the novel’s immediate pages we meet the genius, yet grumpy Commissaire Georges Dupin. From there, it is unclear which mystery Bannalec really wants us to follow: the actual murders at hand, or the character of Dupin himself. There’s a continuous vague hinting at the detective’s past — lovers, previous investigations, feuds — but Bannalec never elaborates.

Sure, a brooding misunderstood character is interesting, but only to an extent. Dupin is so overly pragmatic, he deflates even the most serious of situations.. Everything around him is irksome: the food, his colleagues, his phone, the coffee. His high standards even leave the reader exasperated. How are we supposed to take Dupin seriously amidst all his melodrama?

A case in point: Upon arriving at the initial crime scene, there is his stress-induced exclamation, “F---ing hell!” Yet right after, he authoritatively tells his colleague (who remains calm) not to panic.

This lack of transition seems to be a common occurrence in Bannalec’s writing. The beginning of the novel is just as abrupt. As Dupin grumbles over his work during a morning coffee, a phone call occurs:

“There’s been a murder.”

It’s as simple as that. Dupin downs his coffee and the hunt is on.  

The murder concerns the elderly Pierre-Louis Pennec, owner of a famous and renowned hotel establishment in Pont-Aven, France. Brittany is home to several famous French artists, most notably post-impressionist painter Gauguin, a fact Bannalec seldom forgets to mention.

As Dupin begins to investigate, he meets a slew of characters who initially seem to have nothing to hide. There’s Madame Lajoux, the hotel housekeeper and suspected lover; André, the exiled brother; Loic and Catherine, the dutiful son and his wife; Beauvois, the collaborator; and Delon, the close friend. Yet as the novel progresses, things turn ugly in picturesque Pont-Aven. Dupin is caught in the crossfire of a classic he-said-she-said and a race for fame and fortune.

Just as Dupin is stumped by the investigation at hand, Bannalec too seems confused. The book continuously jumps between the sluggish case and what seems to be a love letter to the French seaside.

It’s strange to have to question a book’s genre while reading it. More often than not, “Brittany” seems more like a pitch from French tourism offices than a detective story.

That being said, the charm of the book does lie in Bannalec’s love for Brittany. Despite Dupin’s intense work ethic, Bannalec loves to pause the story and allow his detective to relish in the rich French cuisine and view the sights. Brace yourself (and your appetite) as Dupin spends pages sitting in cafes, ordering coffee, pain au chocolate, escargot, and other gourmet plates.

In spite of Bannalec’s dry dialogue, characterized by Dupin’s frequent repetitions of “I don’t know,” his prose acts as his attempts of atonement. Immersing oneself in Dupin’s exploration of the French coast is enjoyable, though it does mean the sacrifice of the grittier, more substantial details of the story.

The verdict: A whodunit lacking hoopla, “Death in Brittany” is a case better left on the shelf.

Reach writer Madelaine VanDerHeyden at Twitter: @mbvdh_uw

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