About the Author
Noël Balen lives in Paris, where he shares his time between writing, making records, and lecturing on music. He plays bass, is a music critic and has authored a number of books about musicians in addition to his novel and short-story writing.
Sally Pane studied French at State University of New York Oswego and the Sorbonne before receiving her Masters Degree in French Literature from the University of Colorado where she wrote Camus and the Americas: A Thematic Analysis of Three Works Based on His Journaux de Voyage. Her career includes more than twenty years of translating and teaching French and Italian at Berlitz and at Colorado University Boulder. She lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband.
Read an Excerpt
A Winemaker Detective Mystery
By Jean-Pierre Alaux, Noël Balen, Sally Pane
Le French BookCopyright © 2005 Librairie Arthème Fayard
All rights reserved.
Drinking unsweetened Darjeeling tea was not a problem. Resisting the three crispy little biscuits taunting him from the white porcelain dish was another thing. The evening before, his wife had told him the time had come to shed the extra pounds that were making his shirts gape between the buttons. Benjamin Cooker had, indeed, filled out a bit over the past few months. He preferred to think that his heavy neck and chin, full cheeks, prominent belly, and belt hooked in the first notch gave him the look of a bon vivant, a well-off and satisfied man in his fifties.
Elisabeth Cooker, however, did not agree. The extra weight wasn't good for his looks or his health, so she had taken matters into her own hands. She had gotten hold of a cabbage soup diet purportedly prescribed by the cardiology department of a large urban hospital for obese patients who needed to lose weight before surgery. Elizabeth had cut a large head of cabbage, four slivers of garlic, six large onions, a dozen peeled tomatoes, six carrots, two green peppers, and one stalk of celery and plunged them into three quarts of water with three cubes of fat-free chicken broth. The mixture, seasoned with salt, pepper, curry powder, and parsley, had been boiled for ten minutes and then simmered until all the vegetables were tender. Benjamin was supposed to eat this soup whenever he was hungry over the course of seven days. It was not meant to be the only source of nourishment, and to avoid nutritional deficiencies, he would be allowed fruits, additional vegetables, rice, milk, or a piece of red meat, depending on the day.
The first day promised to be especially grueling. Other than the soup, fruit was all that Benjamin was permitted. And that was limited. He couldn't have any bananas. Benjamin surmised they were too tasty for this Spartan regimen. For drinks he could have only unsweetened tea, natural fruit juice, and water. The wine expert had initially rebelled, citing his professional obligations, upcoming wine tastings, and business lunches. Elisabeth had responded by giving one of his love handles an affectionate pinch. Surrendering, he had leaned over her and planted a grumpy kiss in the hollow of her neck.
There were only a few patrons on the terrace of the Café Régent in downtown Bordeaux, and the damp morning foreshadowed the first chill of fall. Benjamin drank his scalding-hot tea, reached for the small white dish without looking at the perfectly golden crust on the biscuits, and offered it to the person at the next table: an elderly lady with hair pulled back in a bun who was attentively reading the last pages of the local daily newspaper, the Sud-Ouest, which contained the weather forecast and the horoscopes. She thanked him and gobbled the pastries in three quick bites. He stood, nodded good-bye, and resolutely took off toward the Allées de Tourny.
He was about to climb the large staircase to his office when a digital toccata rang out from the cell phone deep inside the pocket of his Loden. He dug the device out, pressed the answer button, and Inspector Barbaroux's gravelly voice assaulted his eardrum. Getting straight to the point without so much as a greeting, the police inspector asked Benjamin to come immediately to 8B Rue Maucoudinat. The detective had a clipped, authoritative tone, perhaps to give away as little information as possible. Irritated, Benjamin made a quick about-face and headed for the Saint Pierre neighborhood. He was not in the habit of complying so swiftly, and he was almost angry with himself for doing what the captain wanted without getting any explanation.
Arriving at the Place Camille Jullian, Benjamin spotted two police cars blocking the narrow street, their doors wide open and lights flashing. An ambulance was parked nearby. The street had also been cordoned off. A uniformed officer recognized Benjamin from afar and unhooked the crime-scene tape to let him pass. He explained that the captain was waiting for him on the third floor of the small building at the corner of the Rue des Trois Chandeliers. Other police officers were holding back a crowd of onlookers, many of whom were standing on their toes to catch a glimpse of whatever was happening behind the flowerpots on the balcony. Benjamin rushed up the two flights of wooden stairs without so much as holding onto the railing and made his way down the hall, where two plainclothes detectives were talking with a woman in a white coat. They all turned and looked him up and down without a word.
"Hello," Benjamin panted. "I believe the inspector is expecting me."
"I don't know if he can be disturbed," said one of the men. "Access to the area is prohibited."
"This way, Mr. Cooker," Barbaroux bellowed from inside the apartment.
In the hallway, an empty gurney sat next to an umbrella stand, which was also empty. The wallpaper, with tedious rows of droopy floral bouquets, oozed a musty odor. Faded prints of religious scenes, shepherds on the heath, and dove hunters added little charm to the stuffy dark tunnel that opened onto a cramped living room furnished in birch veneer.
"Sorry to trouble you, but I needed to see you right away," the inspector said, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his trousers. "Thanks for coming so quickly."
"What happened?" Benjamin asked, overlooking the fact that Barbaroux hadn't bothered to shake his hand. "It must be serious if you've blocked the road off."
"Everyone says you're the most brilliant wine expert of your generation," Barbaroux said. "Some even claim that you're one of the best in the world. Is that true?"
"You didn't bring me here to shower me with compliments, I hope."
"Don't think I'm being sarcastic, Mr. Cooker. That's not my style. But it happens that I need your expertise right now."
The woman in the white coat came into the room. Her hand was raised, and she appeared to be asking permission to cut the conversation short. Two morgue attendants wearing serious expressions were standing behind her.
"My team has finished, Chief. Can we remove the body now?"
"You haven't forgotten anything?" Barbaroux growled.
"Everything's ready to go. We have what we need."
"What about those samples we rushed to the lab?"
"You should be getting the results any minute now."
"In that case, get him out of here!"
The men pushed the gurney through a door that Benjamin had not noticed before, leaving it open as they attempted to lift the half-naked and bloody body. It took several tries, and at one point they almost dropped the corpse. The wine expert averted his eyes and made a sign of the cross.
"Jules-Ernest Grémillon, ninety-three years old," said Barbaroux. "Not a bad age to die."
"Are you going to tell me what happened in this apartment or not?"
"Do you really want to know?" he asked, looking Cooker in the eye. "Well then, follow me."
They went into the kitchen, which looked hardly bigger than a few square feet. The floor, laminate counter, and wall tiles were splattered with dark stains that looked nearly black, except where the dim ceiling light reflected ruby red spots. Cooker felt his stomach lurch, and he was grateful there wasn't much in it. He frowned.
"Total carnage!" Barbaroux said. "The old man was butchered like a pig. What a mess! According to preliminary findings, the victim tried to defend himself before he was struck. It looks like the killer attacked quickly. Over there, the clean dishes on the drain board fell onto the dirty dishes in the sink. They're all smashed. And there, the pans were knocked off the hooks. A box of macaroni is spilled all over the floor."
Benjamin looked on without a word, trying to control the revulsion he felt in this ravaged, bloodstained kitchen, a repugnant cesspool where the most barbaric violence had mixed with the ordinary misery of everyday life.
"But the strangest thing, Mr. Cooker, is behind you," the inspector said, touching the winemaker lightly on the shoulder. "Turn around. I want you to see this. Odd, isn't it?"
On a small wooden table wedged behind the door, right beside the refrigerator, a dozen wine glasses were arranged in a semicircle. Only one, the glass on the extreme right, was full.
"What's the meaning of that?" Benjamin asked, dumbfounded.
"Well, exactly, it's incomprehensible! We're all shocked, I have to admit. This neat little scene in the midst of bloody chaos. Obviously, the murderer took his sweet time leaving a calling card. But what's the message?"
"And what's in the glass?"
"Don't worry. It's not the victim's blood. I'm sure it's just red wine. We sent a sample to the lab. We've taken all the photos and measurements we need. We've dusted for fingerprints, tested everything—absolutely everything—under UV light. Now all I need is you."
"And how can I be of use?"
"Other than you, I don't know anyone who can tell me what is in this glass."
"You're kidding, Inspector. You want me to do a blind tasting on the spot, at the scene of the crime, amid this slaughter?"
"I suppose these are not ideal conditions, but you would be doing me a great favor."
"I'm sorry, Inspector. I would like to help you. But how do we know that what's in the glass, which looks like wine, hasn't been tainted? You can't ask me to taste it without giving me some assurance that there's nothing in it that could make me sick."
"As I said, we sent a sample to the lab, and they're rushing a tox screen. I'll know in a minute or two."
Benjamin didn't have enough time to refuse the detective's request. Barbaroux's cell phone rang. The inspector pulled it out, put it to his ear, and mumbled a few words before ending the call and tucking the device back into his pocket.
"That was the lab. Quick, aren't they? It's wine, and the tox screen didn't reveal anything worrisome. You can go ahead and do your tasting."
Benjamin sighed. There was no way out. He picked up the glass and tipped it carefully to observe the color, search for particles, and examine the density of the surface reflection. Then he brought the glass to his nose and closed his eyes. There was dead silence, barely interrupted by a slight swishing sound when the wine finally rolled into Benjamin's mouth. He savored it slowly, taking some air into his throat before letting the wine slide to the back of his mouth. He spit the wine onto the dish shards in the sink. Then he began all over, his eyes still half-closed, as the inspector watched. Benjamin sensed the man's impatience but still took his time, employing the same expert approach, the same palpitating nostrils, lip movements, and slow, almost lazy chewing, punctuated with wet and noisy clicks.
"Well?" Barbaroux asked, unable to conceal his impatience any longer.
"Where's it from?"
"A very nice nose! Delicate, generous, balanced!"
"Where's it from?"
"On the palate, it's a bit disappointing."
"But where's it from?"
"The aromas are elegant, but the mouthfeel is somewhat faded."
"You don't know?"
"Time has softened the structure."
"And where's it from?"
"Without a doubt?"
"Without a doubt."
"And what else?"
"Let me see ..."
"I have an idea what it might be."
"So tell me, for God's sake!"
"I can never be sure, but ..."
"Are you sure?"
"Almost sure ... Yes, absolutely."
"Almost or absolutely?"
"You're asking too much."
"More or less?"
"An old vintage."
"Approximately how old?"
"It could be sixty years old. Possibly even older."
"Really? You don't say! Still, you're not being very precise."
"Any memory of it?"
"I never tasted it before."CHAPTER 2
"Oh no, sir, you're not too heavy!"
"Come now, Virgile, don't flatter me. You don't need to be polite."
"Maybe a little chubby. That's all."
"In any case, I've never been svelte. I get that from my grandfather Eugene. All the Frontenac men are built like rugby players. It's in the genes."
"Well, on a frame like yours, the weight is fine. You just have that kind of build."
"Yet, on the English side they are all a bit lean and even rather thin. My brother looks like a Cooker, but my father is the best example of that lineage."
"I've never had the honor of meeting him."
"He's very distinguished and elegant. Elisabeth finds him very classy."
"Your wife probably put you on a diet to prevent future health problems."
"That's right. Take her side! Why don't you just go ahead and say I'm fat. You'll sound just like her."
"I didn't mean to suggest anything, sir. I'm just trying to imagine what made her prescribe this little diet for you."
"You must be kidding, boy. A little diet? I had to cancel an important luncheon appointment today. Instead of having a nice meal with a colleague, I'll be choking down my nasty ration of cabbage soup, which will supposedly work miracles by the end of the week."
"How do you mean?"
"Elisabeth's goal is to have me lose ten pounds and no less!"
"Oh, that's very doable, sir," Virgile said.
Benjamin was getting irritated with Virgile, who was being entirely too cheerful and supportive of this god-awful eating plan. Sometimes it was better to just keep your mouth shut. But Benjamin could see that his annoyance was having an effect on his fiercely loyal assistant, and he immediately regretted his peevishness.
He got up from his swivel chair and smiled at the young man. "You're right, my boy. It's certainly very doable. In any case, I've never been able to say no to my wife." Benjamin sighed. Of course, she had only the best of intentions, and he loved her for wanting to take good care of him. "Come, follow me!"
They walked to the small place at the end of the hall that served as kitchen, storeroom, and library for Cooker & Co.
"Look what Jacqueline bought us."
"Your secretary has gotten us a microwave?"
"I suspect Elisabeth had her buy it for us." The Cooker & Co. office had a certain Second Empire patina that was becoming increasingly hard for Benjamin to maintain. The copy machine, computers, and wireless router were rude intrusions. And now there was a microwave.
"For us, you say? Do you mean I am involved in this, too?"
"To tell the truth, Virgile, I don't know how to work this machine. And I have no intention of polarizing any of my molecules while I'm heating up this damned soup."
"It's not very complicated," Virgile said, reaching for the plastic container next to the microwave.
He lifted the lid, stirred the vegetables floating on top of the broth, sniffed the mixture, and turned to his boss with a broad smile.
"This cabbage soup doesn't look bad at all! And if you don't mind, I'd be happy to share it with you."
"You'd do that for me, Virgile? You'd share this ordeal with me?"
"In that case, be my guest."
They returned to Benjamin's office with their steaming bowls of soup. And as they sipped, they began organizing the tasting program they needed to finish by the end of the following week. Benjamin was counting on Virgile to help him elaborate on his impressions and confirm his notes so that he could perfect his chapter on Languedoc-Roussillon wines for the next edition of the Cooker Guide. The Fitou, Minervois, Saint-Chinian, Faugères, and Cabardès appellations, as well as all the Quatorze, La Clape, Picpoul de Pinet, Cabrières, Saturnin, Montpeyroux, Saint-Drézéry, Saint-Georges-d'Orques, and Pic-Saint-Loup estates had already been completed, but they still had much to do.
New samples awaited them in the laboratory directed by Alexandrine de la Palussière on the Avenue Chapeau Rouge. Benjamin knew she was having an increasingly difficult time figuring out how to store, classify, and prepare the tasting sessions. The rooms were at capacity, and the incessant deliveries were filling every nook and cranny, often hindering personnel and slowing the analyses for Cooker & Co. clients. Such was the price of success, and Benjamin was aware that sooner or later he would have to enlarge the space to accommodate the numerous wineries that were clamoring for his services and advice.
Excerpted from Deadly Tasting by Jean-Pierre Alaux, Noël Balen, Sally Pane. Copyright © 2005 Librairie Arthème Fayard. Excerpted by permission of Le French Book.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Title: Deadly Tasting - Winemaker Detective Mystery 4 Author: Jean-Pierre Alaux & Noël Balen Translated By: Sally Pane Published: 10-17-2014 Publisher: Le French Book Pages: 144 Genre: Mystery, Thrillers & Suspense Sub Genre: Cooking, Food & Wine; ISBN: 9781939474216 ASIN: B00L9I3Z2C Reviewer: DelAnne Reviewed For: NetGalley My Rating: 4 1/2 Stars . Benjamin Cooker, wine connoisseur with a sophisticated palate, a lover of fine foods and cigars, is back along with his assistant Virgile Lanssien. In Deadly Tasting a local chief of police calls Cooker in when a serial killer begins a rein of terror when he leaves qw glasses in a semi circle. The first body has on glass filled and the second has two and so on. Benjamin is called in for his expertise on wines to identify the wine to the vineyard it originated from. He is surprised by b what he discovers. Can he and Virgile find the killer before all twelve glasses are filled? What would the killer do if they are all filled, start over? They must race to find the killer before another falls victim to his demented mind. Benjamin and Virgil continue to grow and develop with each new novella. Though the book is short it loses nothing in the writing and enjoyment. Alaux and Balen keep it filled with suspense and intrigue, while still giving us glimpses into the beautiful scenery of the French people and culture. Easily read in one sitting this is a series for anyone who enjoys a good mystery with a food or wine twist. Take a break today to delve into the world of Benjamin Cooker.
Winemaker Detective Series #4 Most works I have read that deal with World War Two have focused on spies, internment camps, military movements - more political or history texts overall. Deadly Tasting touches on that time period in a fresh way, a look at the reality of the "back-home" aspect we don't, as a rule, often hear about. We get a taste of the occupation, and the divisions of ideology in the small highways and byways. I thought the way the writers came at the whole subject was intriguing. A brief sketch of the history, underpinning the whole story, but neither dwelling on the past, nor running from it. The reader hears the down-to-earth, pragmatic voice of the people of the region more concisely than in all the previous works, and I really enjoyed the story all the more for it. Deadly Tasting is like Nightmare in Burgundy in that it is a darker tale, but it is, as ever, tastefully done, keeping focus on the overarching intrigue, rather than the gore of the crime scene and death. The reader gets to see Cooker acting more like a "typical" detective as he pursues the mystery, looking for clues, questioning those of interest. It is fun to see him in this role, in addition to his typical way of intellectually puzzling out the solution. An interesting part of Deadly Tasting is how the authors perfectly capture the anxiety and often futile experiences of a diet. It permeates into every part of their tale. It was an interesting framing technique - but often made me wonder the point of it in the story. It all comes back to priorities in writing, from a different background than my own.
I have been reading this series and quite enjoying it but have to say I was quite disappointed in this one. First, I did like the mystery. It was a neat serial killer puzzler which was described as gruesome but still kept a cozy as no details were given. The problem was there was way too much history packed into this tiny novel that the story suffered from it. I'm already fond of Benjamin and Virgile, but the book didn't allow for their lovable characteristics to come forward. I read a lot of WWII history so know about Vichy France, yet it felt like the book went into history teacher mode; this has been translated into English so I'm sure this information would have been elementary to the original audience and was just tedious for me. I kept wanting the lesson to end and them to get back to the mystery and comradery between Benjamin and Virgile. One thing that is established with this volume though is that the Inspector calls Benjamin in to work on the case as an expert and his prowess as an amateur detective is acknowledged. I think this will set him up nicely for continuing to keep poking his nose into police affairs for the rest of the series. I do not recommend anyone start with this as your first introduction to the series though. Hoping the next one gets me back in the mood for Cooker and his wine, cigars and vintage cars.
Winemaker Detective Mystery 4: Deadly Tasting I love mysteries and had to give this one a try. Even though I have not read the first three in the series (yet!), I was quickly pulled into the life of Benjamin Cooker and his assistant, Virgile Lanssien. They are fun characters and Benjamin is an interesting "detective." I also liked Inspector Barbaroux and the fact that, when it came to something he didn't know, he was willing to call someone in to help. (I do want to go back and read the first three, not just for the mysteries, to find out more about these characters and what I have missed.) The set-up of the crime scenes really drew my attention in - a creative murder/mystery, done in a way I had not seen before. I really, until the very end, had no clue who the murderer was, which made it even more fun with the unexpected conclusion. There's a lot of information about wine and World War II throughout the book, the first something I did not know much about, the second a subject I find very interesting. Sometimes the conversations are a tad boring, at least in the beginning of the book, but they quickly became more interesting as I got used to the way the author does his thing. There are a lot of names in this book (and not just character names, but place names too) and at first this was a little confusing (and tedious), especially since full names are used over and over, instead of referring to them by just their first name or last name after they are introduced. Here's an example: "They drove aimlessly, letting themselves be guided by signposts that inspired wine lovers to daydream: Bellegrave, Beauregard, Le Bon Pasteur, Bourngneuf-Vayron, Le Castellet, Clos des Salles, La Conseillante, La Croix Saint-Georges, Domaine de l'Eglise, L'Enclos, Franc-Maillet, Gazin, Gombaude-Guillot, Grand Beausejour, Grand Moulinet, Latour a Pomerol, Montviel, Petit Village, Pomeaux, Ratouin, Rouget, Tour Maillet, Tour Robert, Trotanoy, Vieux Chateau Certan, Vieux Maillet, Vray Croix de Gay." The thing I think I disliked the most about the book is talk of the diet that Benjamin's wife puts him on. It really takes away from the story, in my opinion, and feels very awkward. We go back and forth between talking about murder, wine, and other things, to talk of cabbage soup and the effects it has on a body: "Benjamin, followed by a silent Virgile, stepped out of the apartment. His stomach was bloated and gassy. Elisabeth had warned him the first few days of the diet might be slightly embarrassing." That's fine if you want to talk about how Benjamin and Virgile sort of bond over this, to show how much Elisabeth cares about her husband's health, and even to give reason to Benjamin being slightly aggressive and cranky throughout the story, but the whole body reaction to the cabbage soup could have been left out. Note: I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.
A delightful story filled with both fun and suspense. The interactions between Benjamin and his assistant, the police sergeant and his friends are absolutely delightful. The only problem I had with this book is it ended too soon. I wanted much more.
I have to confess that I thought this book would be hard for me to get into. I usually stay away from books written by two authors because I think it doesn't always help the storyline flow, I'm glad to know that was not the case for "Deadly Tasting." I was captivated with the intrigue from the very beginning. The tension of the story was perfectly paced and I was caught up in the mystery of catching the serial killer. The writing was very good and the storyline very creative. Fun and intriguing read!