Protagonists of crime novels—whether lowly beat cops, grizzled veteran detectives or even dastardly criminals themselves—often have personalities that make or break the story. The success or failure of a crime novel depends on both how well the author sets ups and teases apart the strands of a mind-boggling case and whether we are interested in the how and why—and the who—of the lead-up to the eventual dénouement. The protagonists of this genre aren’t always honorably likeable or even intriguingly anti-heroic (think Jack Reacher or even Jason Bourne) but they are always clearly defined, and they must carry the story on their shoulders. To my great disappointment, Bruno Courrèges, the Chief of Police in Martin Walker’s most recent crime novel, The Resistance Man, is simply too bland and inscrutable a character to shoulder that burden. The most interesting things about this nondescript French public servant are his recipe for canard au miel and his puppy Balzac.
At first blush, this novel seemed right up my alley. Charming French farmhouses in the gorgeous Dordogne? Check. An erudite mystery set against the backdrop of French history? Check. Fine wines, Gauloises smoked during leisurely lunch breaks, multi-course meals lovingly prepared, described and consumed? Check, check and check. So why was this such a clunker?
The opening plot was certainly promising—a former member of the French Resistance is found dead in his apartment, clutching a clue to a 70-year-old unsolved train robbery in his wizened hand. But instead of focusing on this potentially fascinating crime, the author unfortunately then introduces an alarming quantity of tangential sub-plots in an oddly subdued and nonchalant manner—confirming that these are only minimally interesting, both to Police Chief Bruno and to the reader. A British spymaster’s home is burglarized, the thieves making off with fabulous pieces of art and expensive wines. An American academic is shortly thereafter also the victim of a mysterious break-in—this time apparently due to some vague revelations she was poised to publish about France’s nuclear program. At some later point an art dealer is savagely murdered, a crime that may or may not be related to his involvement with St. Denis’ gay community. Somehow, eventually, God willing, Bruno will manage to tie all of these disparate crimes together—but will the reader still be around when he does?
It must be said that my opinion on this novel is surely in the minority. After all, this is the sixth installment in the Bruno, Chief of Police Series, and the cover states clearly that it is an International Bestseller. I have not read the other five novels in the series, but they must have been stellar, since obviously the public clamored for space to be made on the world’s bookshelves for yet another. It will not, sadly, find space on mine.