Commissaire Dupin is back in The Fleur de Sel Murders, this Brittany mystery from international bestselling author Jean-Luc Bannalec.
The old salt farmers have always said that the violet scent of the Fleur de Sel at harvest time on the salt marshes of the Guérande Peninsula has been known to cause hallucinations. Commissaire Dupin also starts to believe this when he’s attacked out of the blue in the salt works.
He had actually been looking forward to escaping his endless paperwork and taking a trip to the “white country” between the raging Atlantic Ocean and idyllic rivers. But when he starts snooping around mysterious barrels on behalf of Lilou Breval, a journalist friend, he finds himself unexpectedly under attack. The offender remains a mystery, and a short time later, Breval disappears without a trace. It is thanks to his secretary Nolwenn and the ambition of the prefect that Dupin is assigned to the case. But he won’t be working alone because Sylvaine Rose is the investigator responsible for the departmentand she lives up to her name…
What’s going on in the salt works? Dupin and Rose search feverishly for clues and stumble upon false alibis, massive conflicts of interest, personal feudsand ancient Breton legends.
About the Author
JEAN-LUC BANNALEC divides his time between Germany and coastal Brittany, France. Death in Brittany, the first case for Commissaire Dupin, was published in German in March 2012 and sold 600,000 copies, spending many months on the bestseller list. It has been sold into 14 countries.
Read an Excerpt
The First Day
The fleur de sel gave off a curious fragrance of violets in the days after the harvest; it mingled with the smell of rich clay and the salt and iodine in the air that people here in the middle of the White Land — the Gwenn Rann, the far-reaching salt marshes of the Guérande — smelled and tasted more strongly with every breath than anywhere else on the coast. Now, at the end of the summer, the distinctive scent filled the salt gardens. The old paludiers, the salt farmers, used to say that it made people faint sometimes, that it caused mirages and hallucinations.
It was a breathtaking, bizarre landscape. A landscape of the four elements needed for the alchemy of the salt: sea, sun, earth, and wind. Once a large bay, then a lagoon, a mudflat, a marsh put to good use by skilled hands, it was situated on a peninsula created by the raging Atlantic Ocean between the Loire and the Vilaine. The majestic little medieval town of Guérande, from which the area took its name, marked the northerly reaches of the salt gardens. In the south the gardens tailed off into the remaining part of the lagoon, and beyond that lay Le Croisic, with its enchanting port. You could see it from there, that impressive spectacle: with its mighty tidal rhythm, the Atlantic filled the lagoon with water, carrying it right into the delicate capillaries of the salt gardens. Especially on days when the "grande marée" happened, the spring tide following the full moon.
The White Land was completely flat, without a hint of a slope. For more than twelve centuries, it had been broken up into countless large, small, and very small rectangular salt ponds, laid out with mathematical precision and in turn bordered by random-looking fluid shapes made up of ground and water. An endlessly branching, elaborate system of canals, reservoir pools, preheating pools, evaporating pools, and harvesting pools. A system with just one purpose: to keep the sea moving as slowly as possible using sluice gates so that the sun and the wind made it evaporate almost entirely, until the first crystals formed. Salt was the purest essence of the sea. "Child of the sun and wind," people called it. The pools had poetic names: vasières, cobiers, fares, adernes, oeillets. One of the oeillets, the harvest pools, had been in use since Charlemagne's time. The harvest pools were sacred to the paludiers — everything depended on them, on their "character": the floors of the pools, the different types of clay and the various mineral compositions. Lazy, generous, cheerful, feverish, sensitive, harsh, contrary — the paludiers talked about them as if they were people. That's where the salt was cultivated and harvested in the open air. White gold.
Incredibly narrow, unpaved paths meandered between the pools, creating inextricable labyrinths, generally accessible only on foot. The salt marshes may have been flat, but you still couldn't see very far. Overgrown earthen walls of varying heights ran alongside the pools and pathways. Scraggy bushes, shrubs, tall grasses crooked and bleached strawlike by the sun. A gnarled tree here and there. And the cabanes, the salt farmers' huts made from stone or wood or metal sheeting, were scattered about.
Now that it was September, that dazzlingly bright white was all around. The white of the salt that had been piling up into impressive mounds over the summer. It lay in careful heaps, narrowing to peaks like volcanoes and sometimes two or three meters high.
Commissaire Georges Dupin from the Commissariat de Police Concarneau couldn't help smiling. This landscape was surreal. Amazing scenery. The atmosphere was heightened by the overabundance of color in the sky and the water — an extravagant display of every shade of violet, pink, orange, and red — caused by the setting sun. And as the late-summer evening slowly closed in, a refreshingly brisk breeze picked up at the end of another baking-hot day. Commissaire Dupin locked the car, one of the force's official blue, white, and red cars. The impressively old and problematically small Peugeot 106 served as the commissariat's general backup car. Dupin's own dearly beloved, equally ancient Citroën XM had been at the garage for ten days. It was the hydropneumatic suspension, for the umpteenth time.
Dupin had parked at the side of the road, half on the grass. He'd walk from here.
It was a narrow little road that meandered through the salt marshes, but at least it was paved. It had not been easy to find. Branching off the Route des Marais, it was one of only three winding roads between Le Croisic and Guérande town that cut across the Salt Land.
Dupin looked around. There was nobody in sight. He hadn't met a single car on the entire Route des Marais. In the salt marshes, it seemed the day had come to a close.
He had only a hand-drawn sketch of the place he was trying to get to. It showed a hut near one of the salt marshes, toward the open lagoon, about three hundred meters away. He would search the salt mine in question and the huts linked to it, keeping an eye out for "anything suspicious" — he had to admit it was all a bit vague.
Once he had taken a look around, he'd head straight for Le Croisic. Dupin figured this was how it would go: after a brief and likely fruitless inspection of the area, he would be in Le Grand Large a quarter of an hour from now, eating Breton sole fried a golden brown in salted butter. And over a glass of cold Quincy he would be looking out at the water, the pale sand and turquoise of the lagoon, watching the last of the light gradually disappear in the west. He had been in Le Croisic once before, last year, with his friend Henri, and had great memories of the little town (and of the sole).
Regardless of the fact that the reasons he was here were extremely vague, dubious, and downright ridiculous, Commissaire Dupin was in a decidedly good mood this evening. In fact, he had had an overwhelming urge to get outdoors again at last. He had spent five weeks — more or less every single day — in his stuffy, airless office. Five weeks! Kept busy with mind-numbing desk work, official paperwork, the usual trappings of bureaucracy — the tasks that, unlike in books and films, filled the life of a real commissaire over and over again: new patrol cars for his two inspectors were accompanied by new "Regulations for the Use of Vehicles Allocated for the Fulfillment of Police Duty," eight hundred pages long, with nine-point type and practically no line spacing, it was "extremely important," with a "number of crucial reforms" according to the prefecture; a raise for his ever-patient secretary Nolwenn (finally!) — he had been fighting for it two years and nine months; painstaking filing for two old, trivial cases. This was a record for him since he had been "relocated" from Paris to the middle of nowhere: five weeks of office work during these magical late-summer days, when September's enchanting light outshone every other month yet again. Weeks of a settled, spectacular Azores high, like something out of a picture book, not a drop of rain — "La Bretagne fait la cure du soleil," Brittany is getting the sunshine treatment, the newspapers reported. Five weeks in which Dupin's bad mood had worsened on an almost daily basis. It had become unbearable for everyone.
Lilou Breval's request that he take a look round the salt marshes — although he had absolutely no connection with this area — had been a welcome excuse to really get out and about. Dupin didn't mind what excuse it was in the end. And much more important: he had owed Lilou Breval a favor for a long time now. The journalist from the Ouest-France stayed away from police officers on principle — not least because she came into conflict with police and legal regulations on a less than infrequent basis with her largely unorthodox methods — but somehow she had come to trust him. Dupin respected and liked her.
Lilou Breval had provided him with "certain information" from time to time. She had last "helped" him two years ago during the case of the murdered hotelier in Pont-Aven that had ended up capturing France's attention. Lilou Breval was not that involved with everyday journalistic work, specializing instead in large-scale research and stories, mostly very Breton stories. Investigative ones. Two years ago she had played quite a significant role in uncovering a colossal case of cigarette smuggling: 1.3 million cigarettes had been hidden in an enormous concrete pillar that had supposedly been built for an oil rig off the coast.
Lilou Breval had called Dupin the night before and — something she'd never done before — asked him to do something: to take a look at "a particular salt pond and a hut nearby." Look out for "suspicious barrels" there, "blue plastic barrels." Apparently she couldn't say what this was about yet, but she was "reasonably certain" that "something very fishy" was going on. She said she would drop in to the commissariat as soon as possible after he had inspected the area so that she could explain everything she knew so far. Dupin hadn't even begun to understand what this was all about, but after asking some questions that went unanswered he had eventually murmured "fine, okay" and Lilou Breval had faxed him a sketch of the paths and the area that morning. Of course Dupin knew that he was contravening every possible regulation, and on his way here he had felt a tiny bit uneasy, which was not usually his style. Officially, he wasn't even allowed to be here — he ought to have asked the local police to look into the issue. Not least because the Département Loire-Atlantique, where the salt marshes were located, was not even, from an administrative point of view, part of Brittany anymore — let alone "his patch"— ever since it had been snatched away from the Bretons "with legalized violence" during the much-maligned "Reform of Administrative Structure" in the sixties. Culturally, in daily life and in the consciousness of the French, however — and also in the rest of the world — the département was still Breton through and through to this day.
But his brief moment of doubt was soon forgotten.
Dupin owed Lilou Breval, and he took that very seriously. A good police officer depended on someone doing them a favor now and again.
* * *
Dupin stood next to his patrol car, towering over it with his generally sturdy build and broad shoulders. To be on the safe side, he glanced at the sketch again. Then he walked across the road and started down the grassy path. After just a few meters the first salt pools appeared to his right and left, the path falling sharply away right to the edges of the pools. A meter or a meter and a half deep, Dupin reckoned. The pools were all kinds of colors — pale beige, pale grayish, grayish blue, others were an earthy brown, reddish, all crisscrossed by narrow clay footbridges and dams. Birds strutted about round the edges, looking like they were on a silent search for food. Dupin had no idea what they were called; his ornithological knowledge was lacking.
The landscape was truly extraordinary. The White Land, it seemed, belonged to people only during the day, belonging entirely to nature again in the evening and nighttime. It was quiet, not a sound to be heard apart from an odd kind of chirping in the background, and Dupin couldn't tell whether it was coming from birds or crickets. It verged on the eerie. Every so often, a cranky gull screeched, an emissary from the nearby sea.
Perhaps coming here had been an idiotic idea after all. Even if he were to see something suspicious — which he wouldn't — he would have to let his local colleagues know immediately anyway. Dupin stopped walking. Maybe he should drive straight to Le Croisic and forget this cryptic mission. But — he had given Lilou Breval his word.
Dupin's deliberations were interrupted by his mobile ringing. It seemed even louder than usual in this meditative silence. He fished his small phone out of his pocket, his face brightening when he saw Nolwenn's number.
"Bonj — aire. — there?" There was a small pause, then: "— air — And have — trip — kang — roo —?"
There was a terrible clicking sound on the line.
"I can't hear you, Nolwenn. I'm already at the salt marshes, I ..."
"They — between the — I know — ly — kangar —"
Dupin could have sworn he had heard the word "kangaroo" for the second time. But he might have been mistaken. He spoke much more loudly this time.
"I — honestly — cannot — understand — a — word. I'll — call — you later."
"— just — ay — ter," and the connection seemed to drop altogether.
Dupin didn't have a clue why Nolwenn was going on about an Australian marsupial. It sounded preposterous. But he didn't agonize over it any longer. Out here in the back of beyond, Nolwenn was undoubtedly the most important person to him. And although he felt a little bit "Bretonized" by now, he would still be lost without her. In fact, Nolwenn's scheme was called "Bretonization," and came with the motto: "Brittany: Love it — or leave it!"
He thought highly of Nolwenn's practical and social intelligence as well as her inexhaustible regional and local knowledge. And her passion for oddities and "good stories." The kangaroo must be one of them.
Dupin had just started to refocus on the task at hand when his phone rang again. He answered automatically. "Can you hear me now, Nolwenn?" For a few moments he couldn't hear anything apart from some more loud clicks.
Then suddenly there were a few reasonably comprehensible words: "I'm looking forward — morning, Georges. Really."
Claire. It was Claire. The line went bad again almost immediately.
"— aurant — ure — ning."
"I'm — I'm coming tomorrow evening. Yes, of course!"
There was a pause. Which was followed without warning by an earsplitting hiss. Tomorrow was Claire's birthday. He had booked a table in La Palette, her favorite restaurant in the Sixth Arrondissement in Paris. A great big boeuf Bourguignon with hearty bacon and young mushrooms, braised in the finest red wine for several hours, the meat so tender you could eat it with a spoon. It was meant to be a surprise, although he assumed that Claire had long since cottoned on because he had dropped far too many hints, as usual. He was going to catch a train at one o'clock and be in Paris at six.
"Did it seem — to come — betwee — ! Is — ways — unclear?"
"No. No. Not at all. Nothing is unclear! I'll be there at six. I already have my ticket."
"I — barely hear —"
"Same here. I just wanted to say that I'm really looking forward to it. To tomorrow evening, I mean."
"— just — dinner."
"I've arranged everything, don't worry."
Dupin was speaking too loudly again.
"— fish — later."
This was pointless.
"I'll — call — you — later — Claire."
"— maybe — later — work — better —"
He hung up.
After meeting last year in those late-August days in Paris, which had been so wonderful, they began to speak on the phone every day and see a great deal of each other. It was mostly spontaneous, they just got on the TGV. Yes, they were back together. Although they hadn't said it out loud and it was still far from official. Although Dupin had made the awful mistake of mentioning it vaguely in an unguarded moment to his mother, who was immediately delighted, in a far from vague way, that she might now get to have that long-awaited daughter-in-law after all.
Claire had just been in the U.S., at a cardiac surgery training course at the famous Mayo Clinic. So they hadn't seen each other for seven weeks, although they had spoken on the phone a lot. That was definitely another reason why Dupin had been in such a bad mood recently. Claire had only been back two days now. And that was a large part of the reason for Dupin's good mood today. But he was a bit nervous. In general. He didn't want to mess up what he had with Claire again, not like he had done the first time round. He had even bought the train ticket three weeks ago to make sure that nothing could get in the way.
He would call Claire back from Le Croisic very soon. And talk to her again about tomorrow in peace and quiet. Right after the sole.
He would be quick here.
Commissaire Dupin was pretty sure he had seen someone close to the wooden hut. Only briefly, for a split second. More of a shadow really; it had disappeared again instantly.
The commissaire slowed his pace. He scanned his surroundings. He was about twenty meters away from the hut. The path ran past it and looked like it plunged headlong into a salt pond.
Dupin came to a stop. He ran a hand roughly down the back of his head.
His instinct told him something wasn't right. He did not like this situation one bit.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Fleur de Sel Murders"
Copyright © 2012 Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne/Germany.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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.
Table of Contents
The First Day,
The Second Day,
The Third Day,
Also by Jean-Luc Bannalec,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I really enjoyed this book. I am disappointed that there's not more. I felt like I was there.