Commissaire Georges Dupin, a cantankerous, Parisian-born caffeine junkie recently relocated from the glamour of Paris to the remote (if picturesque) Breton coast, is dragged from his morning croissant and coffee to the scene of a curious murder. The local village of Pont-Avena sleepy community by the sea where everyone knows one other and nothing much seems to happenis in shock. The legendary ninety-one-year-old hotelier Pierre-Louis Pennec, owner of the Central Hotel, has been found dead.
A picture-perfect seaside village that played host to Gaugin in the nineteenth century, Pont-Aven is at the height of its tourist season and is immediately thrown into uproar. As Dupin delves into the lives of the victim and the suspects, he uncovers a web of secrecy and silence that belies the village's quaint image.
A delectable read, Jean-Luc Bannalec's Death in Brittany transports readers to the French coast, where you can practically smell the sea air and taste the perfectly cooked steak frites in an expertly crafted, page-turning mystery for fans of Martin Walker.
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The First Day
The seventh of July was a magnificent summer's day, one of those majestic Atlantic days that always lifted Commissaire Dupin's spirits. There was blue everywhere. By Breton standards, the air was already very warm for so early in the morning but it was a perfectly clear day. There was a distinct sharpness to everything. Just last night it had looked like the end of the world was nigh; heavy, low-lying clouds, ominously black and monstrous, had raced across the sky as the rain came down in torrents of biblical proportions.
Concarneau – or the gorgeous 'Blue City' as it is called to this day because of the gleaming blue fishing nets that lined the waterfront in the last century – was glittering in the sun. Commissaire Georges Dupin was sitting in the Amiral, at the very end of the bar, the newspaper spread out in front him as usual. Above the beautiful old covered market building where you could buy fish fresh from the sea every day (whatever happened to find its way into the local fishermen's nets early that morning) the round clock read half past seven. The very traditional café and restaurant where he was sitting, a former hotel, was right on the waterfront opposite the famous old town. The ville close had been built on a small, flat island that lay like a picture postcard in the large harbour surrounded by strong walls and towers. This was where the languid River Moros flowed into the harbour.
Dupin had spent his whole life amidst the glamour of Paris, but two years and seven months ago he had been 'relocated' to this remote backwater due to 'certain disputes' (as the internal memos had put it) and ever since then had drunk his petit café in the Amiral; it was a ritual as delightful as it was inflexible.
The rooms at the Amiral still had that wonderful atmosphere reminiscent of the nineteenth century when world-renowned artists, and then later Maigret, had stayed there. Gauguin once got himself into a brawl right outside after some sailors insulted his extremely young Javanese girlfriend. The Amiral had gone downhill over time, but then twelve years ago Lily and Philippe Basset – both from Concarneau but whose paths happened to cross in Paris – decided they had other plans and took it over. And they had made something of it again. It was indisputably the secret hub of the village. As atmospheric as it was, it was still authentic – no fussy decor or folk music here. Most of the tourists preferred the 'prettier' cafés further down by the large square, so one usually had the place to oneself.
'Another coffee. And a croissant.'
Lily could tell from the Commissaire's expression and abrupt gestures just what her customer wanted, despite the fact that he had muttered his order to himself rather than saying it out loud. This was Dupin's third coffee.
'Thirty-seven million – did you see, Monsieur le Commissaire? It's up to thirty-seven million now.' Lily was already standing at the espresso machine, which was one of those ones that made proper noises. It still impressed Dupin every time he saw it.
Lily Basset was perhaps in her early forties, a very pretty woman with curly, dark blonde hair and boundless energy and enthusiasm. Those green eyes of hers were always watching. Nothing escaped her – it was truly remarkable. Dupin liked her very much, and Philippe too, who was the restaurant's absolutely superb, yet utterly unpretentious chef, even though neither of them spoke very much. In fact, perhaps that's why he liked them. Lily had accepted the Commissaire from the outset – which was a big thing here anyway, but even more so because Parisians are the only people whom Bretons consider to be true outsiders.
Dupin realised he definitely wanted to have a bit of a flutter. The enormous lotto jackpot that had the whole country on tenterhooks still hadn't been won last week. Dupin had confidently filled in twelve rows and managed to get one number right in two – different – boxes.
'It's Friday already, Monsieur le Commissaire.'
'I know. I know.'
He would go to the Tabac-Presse in a minute.
'Last week all the lottery tickets were sold out by Friday morning.'
Dupin had slept dreadfully, in fact he hadn't slept properly in weeks. He tried to concentrate on his newspaper. In June, the northern part of Finistère had had a measly sixty-two per cent of the sunshine of an average June – a hundred and forty-five hours. Southern Finistère had managed seventy per cent, neighbouring Morbihan, just a few kilometres away, had notched up at least eight-two per cent. The article was the lead story in Ouest France. Astonishing weather statistics were one of the paper's specialities – indeed they were a speciality of all Breton newspapers and all Bretons in general. 'For centuries', this was the key, very dramatic point, 'no other June has provided us with so devastatingly few hours of sunshine and warmth.' The same old story. And the article ended with the inevitable, 'That's just how it is, the weather is beautiful in Brittany ... five times a day.' It was like a patriotic mantra. But only Bretons themselves could complain or laugh about Breton weather; when other people did it, it was considered extremely rude. In the nearly three years Dupin had spent here, he had learnt that this was true of all things 'Breton'.
The piercing sound of his mobile made the Commissaire jump. It got him every time. Labat's number flashed up on the screen. Labat was one of his two inspectors. Dupin's mood darkened, and he let it ring. He would see him at the station in half an hour anyway. Dupin thought Labat small-minded, unbearably keen and sycophantic, yet also driven by hideous ambition. Labat was in his mid-thirties, rather stocky, with a round baby face, slightly protruding ears, a bald patch that he couldn't quite pull off – and he considered himself irresistible. He had been assigned to Dupin right at the beginning and the Commissaire had made numerous attempts to get rid of him. He had been pretty thorough in his efforts, but so far without success.
The phone rang a second time. Labat was always so full of his own importance. The phone rang a third time. Dupin realised he was feeling a little uneasy.
'Monsieur le Commissaire? Is that you?'
'Who else were you expecting on my phone?' barked Dupin.
'Prefect Guenneugues just called. You've got to stand in for him. Tonight, the Friendship Committee from Staten Stoud in Canada.'
Labat's dulcet tones were obnoxious.
'As you know, Prefect Guenneugues is the honorary chairman of the committee. The official delegation is staying in France for a week and tonight they are the guests of honour at the Bretonnade in Trégunc Plage. Due to unforeseen circumstances, the Prefect has a few things to take care of in Brest, and is requesting that you welcome the delegation and their chairman, Docteur de la Croix, on his behalf. Trégunc is in our jurisdiction after all.'
Dupin had no idea what Labat was talking about.
'Staten Stoud is twinned with Concarneau, it's near Montreal, the Prefect has some distant relatives there who ...'
'It's quarter to eight, Labat. I'm having breakfast.'
'It's very important to the Prefect, it was the only reason he called. He asked me to inform you immediately.'
Dupin hung up. He had no desire to devote even a moment's thought to this. Thank God he was too tired to get properly worked up about it. Dupin couldn't stand Guenneugues. What's more, he still had no idea how to pronounce his name, which admittedly was not an infrequent occurrence for him where Bretons were concerned. This often landed him in embarrassing situations since he had to deal with people all day.
Dupin turned back to his paper. The Ouest France and the Télégramme, those were the two big local papers and they were devoted to Brittany in a way that was both affectionate and proud; after a page of very concise international and national news dealing swiftly with world events, there followed thirty pages of regional and local, mostly very local, reports. Commissaire Dupin loved both papers. After his 'relocation' he had, at first unwillingly but then with growing interest, begun his study of the Breton soul. Next to meeting the people, it was these small, seemingly insignificant stories which had taught him the most. Stories about life at the 'End of World', the 'finis terra' as the Romans – those invaders! – had called the most remote tip of this wild, craggy peninsula that stretched out into the raging Atlantic. It was a name the département retained to this day. Amongst the locals – the Celts! – the land of course wasn't known as the 'End of the World', but in fact its exact opposite: 'Penn ar Bed', literally the 'Head of the World', or 'The Beginning of Everything'.
The phone rang again, and yet again it was Labat. Dupin could feel the anger rising up inside him despite his fatigue.
'I won't be able to make it tonight, I have things to do, official duties, tell that to Geungeu ... tell that to the Prefect.'
'A murder. There's been a murder.'
Labat's voice was quiet and flat.
'In Pont-Aven, Monsieur le Commissaire. The owner of the Central Hotel, Pierre-Louis Pennec, was found dead in his restaurant a few minutes ago. The police in Pont-Aven were called.'
'Is this a joke, Labat?'
'Two of our colleagues from Pont-Aven should be there by now.'
'In Pont-Aven? Pierre-Louis Pennec?'
'Excuse me, Monsieur le Commissaire?'
'What else do you know?'
'Only what I've just told you.'
'And it's definitely murder?'
'It certainly looks that way.'
Dupin was annoyed by his own question almost before it had passed his lips.
'I can only tell you what the caller, the hotel chef, told the officer on duty, which he then –'
'Fine. But what's it got to do with us? Pont-Aven is in the Quimperlé jurisdiction – this is Derrien's case.'
'Commissaire Derrien has been on holiday since Monday. We're in charge when it comes to serious matters. That's why the station in Pont-Aven –'
'Okay, okay ... I'll head there now. You should too. And call Le Ber, I want him to come straight away.'
'Le Ber is already on his way.'
'Good ... Unbelievable. Fucking hell.'
'Monsieur le Commissaire?'
Dupin hung up.
'I've got to go,' he called in Lily's direction, but she was engrossed in a telephone call. Dupin placed a few coins on the bar and left the Amiral. His car was parked in the big car park on the waterfront just a short walk away.
* * *
'Absurd,' thought Dupin as he sat in his car, 'this is absolutely absurd.' A murder in Pont-Aven, at the height of summer, just as the tourist season was about to turn the village into a big open-air museum, as they said so scornfully in Concarneau. Pont-Aven was an idyllic place. It must be years since the last murder in this picturesque – to Dupin's taste much too picturesque – village. At the end of the nineteenth century it became known around the world for its artists' colony, largely because of Paul Gauguin who was of course its most prominent member. Now Pont-Aven turned up in every French guidebook and every history of modern art. And on top of this, the elderly Pierre-Louis Pennec was a legendary hotelier, an institution, just like his father before him, and indeed his grandmother, the famous founder of the Central, Marie-Jeanne Pennec before that.
Dupin fumbled about with the ludicrously small buttons on his car phone. He hated it.
'Where are you, Nolwenn?'
'On my way to the station. Labat called just now so I'm up to speed. I suppose you'll want Doctor Lafond.'
'As quickly as possible.'
There had been a different forensic pathologist in Quimper for the last year and Dupin couldn't stand him. Ewen Savoir was a bumbling young snot-nosed fool. Impressive instruments and gadgets but he was stupid, and terribly long- winded. Admittedly Dupin couldn't exactly claim that he liked grumpy old Dr Lafond; he and Lafond clashed too if things weren't going quickly enough for Dupin, and then Lafond would fly off the handle, but his work was simply excellent.
'Savoir drives me absolutely insane.'
'I'll take care of everything.'
Dupin loved hearing this sentence from Nolwenn's mouth. She had been the secretary to his predecessor and his predecessor's predecessor. She was wonderful. Marvellous, absolutely marvellous.
'Good, I'm at the last roundabout in Concarneau. I'll be there in ten minutes.'
'This sounds like a nasty business, Monsieur le Commissaire. It's unbelievable. I knew old Pennec. My husband did a few jobs for him a few years ago.'
For a moment Dupin was about to ask what 'a few jobs' meant, but he let it go. He had more important things to worry about. To this day he didn't quite understand what Nolwenn's husband actually did for a living, he somehow just seemed to pop up everywhere, always doing 'a few jobs' for all sorts of people.
'There's going to be such a fuss. An icon of Finistère. Of Brittany. Of France. Mon Dieu ... I'll be in touch.'
'All right. I'm already at the station.'
'Speak to you soon.'
Dupin drove fast; far too fast for these narrow streets. It was hard to believe that old Derrien had chosen this time to go on holiday for the first time in years. He would be away for ten days. His daughter was getting married; the wedding was in Réunion which even Derrien thought was an utterly preposterous idea. The groom came from the same sleepy backwater she did, three kilometres from Pont-Aven.
Dupin fiddled with the car phone again.
'Monsieur le Commissaire?'
'Are you there yet?'
'Yes, I just got here.'
'Where's the body?'
'Downstairs in the restaurant.'
'Have you been in yet?'
'Don't let anyone in. Nobody goes in before I get there, including you. Who found Pennec?'
'Francine Lajoux. An employee.'
'What's she saying?'
'I haven't spoken to her yet. I've honestly only just got here.'
'Right. Okay. I'll be there right away.'
* * *
The pool of blood looked grotesquely large to Dupin. It had spread out in a shapeless mass across the uneven stone floor. Pierre-Louis Pennec was a tall man, thin, wiry, with short grey hair. An imposing figure, even at ninety-one years old. Pennec was lying on his back, his corpse strangely contorted, his left hand touching the hollow of his knee, one hip badly dislocated, right hand on his heart, face horrifyingly distorted. His eyes wide and fixed on the ceiling. He had a number of obvious wounds to his upper body and throat.
'Somebody really battered Pierre-Louis Pennec. An old man. Who would do something like this?'
Le Ber was standing two metres behind Dupin, they were the only people in the room. There was disgust in his voice. Dupin was silent. Le Ber was right, though: this really was a brutal murder.
'Fucking hell!' Dupin ran his hand fiercely through his hair.
'Presumably those are knife wounds, but there's no sign of the murder weapon.'
'Let's not panic, Le Ber.'
'Two officers from Pont-Aven are securing the hotel, Monsieur le Commissaire. I know one of them, Albin Monfort. He's been a policeman for a good while. A very good policeman. The other one is called Pennarguear. I didn't catch his first name. Still very young.'
Dupin laughed in spite of himself. Le Ber was still young himself. He was in his early thirties and this was only his second year as an inspector. He was precise, quick, intelligent. But he was always very serious and spoke in a solemn manner. Sometimes he had a mischievous glint in his eye which Dupin liked to see. And he never made any fuss.
'Nobody's been into the room yet, have they?'
Dupin had already asked this question three times, but it didn't irritate Le Ber in the slightest.
'Not a soul. But the pathologist and the scene of crime team should be here soon.'
Dupin understood. Le Ber knew that the Commissaire liked to have a quiet look around by himself before the rabble descended.
Pennec was lying in the furthest corner of the room, right in front of the bar. It was an L-shaped room, with the restaurant in the long front section and the bar in the small bay that branched off it. From the restaurant there was a little corridor to the kitchen which was in an annexe behind the main building. The door was locked.
Excerpted from "Death In Brittany"
Copyright © 2012 Jean-Luc Bannalec.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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