Dordogne caves backdrop to mystery

The Devil's Cave - Martin Walker
The Devil's Cave - Martin Walker

The Devil’s Cave

By Martin Walker

Alfred A. Knopf, 2013; $24.95

Martin Walker is senior director of the Global Business Policy Council and editor in chief emeritus at the United Press International. He has a holiday home in the Dordogne region of southwest France, and there had the happy inspiration for a series of novels based on the fictional small town of St. Denis and its chief of police, Bruno Courrèges. They have acquired a devoted following in Europe as well as in the United States.

The Devil’s Cave opens with a small flat-bottomed boat floating slowly along the Vézère River as it passes through St. Denis, the boat heavily laden with the body of a beautiful and dead woman, a pentagram painted onto her naked body. The local priest, Father Sentout, declares a satanic connection, for, as Chief Bruno agrees, “Getting alarmed about the devil is part of his job description.”

The longtime mayor is at first outraged, fearing for his town’s reputation, but photographs in the local newspaper Sud Ouest quickly draw hundreds of the curious to fill the hotel and cafés. The investigation begins with a Black Mass but quickly expands to include the financial machinations of an outside group petitioning to build a resort — after the town provides the infrastructure. The past intrudes on the present through the role of the “Red Countess,” descended via a royal mistress from Louis XVI, who carried out heroic deeds during the World War II Resistance and then became a dedicated Communist.

Central to the plot is one of the Dordogne’s famous caves, the Gouffre de Colombac, called the “Devil’s Cave,” where French guerrillas once hid themselves and weapons from the Germans and is now a tourist attraction. Many tunnels of the cave have been barely explored, and at least one has an entrance kept secret because “you never know when the Germans will come again. Or the English.”

Chief Bruno is the quintessential French policeman: He knows the secrets of everyone in town and will never reveal any of them — unless a crime has been committed. Here is the ultimate definition of “community policing.” Bruno is impossible to dislike: wise, kind, and gentle — carrying his new basset hound puppy in a binocular case around his neck. He is also a lover of local delicacies, good wine, and beautiful women — a stereotype, but c’est la France.

The Homecoming

By Carsten Stroud

Alfred A. Knopf, 2013; $25.00

For some three decades, Carsten Stroud has been writing about crime both actual and fictional. The Homecoming is from the latter category, the second book in a trilogy about the southern town of Niceville, where evil has made a home. Almost every principal character is involved in either upholding or breaking the law — sometimes both simultaneously. Present-day murder, bank robbery, and industrial espionage command immediate attention, while in the background atrocities from the past threaten disastrous revelations. With the Niceville trilogy, Stroud inaugurates a new genre, the traditional crime thriller tricked out with elements of gothic horror.

Stroud is a writer with strong opinions. On relationships: “Love may be blind, but a few years of marriage will fix that.” On higher education: “Most of the reporters crowding around him were. . . products of various elite Ivy League universities, with all the monumental cultural ignorance that entails.” On pets: “Cats, who are no less particular than dogs, but far more willing to sell themselves out for a soft bed and regular meals.” Read Stroud and The Homecoming at your own risk.

A Treacherous Paradise

By Henning Mankell, translated by Laurie Thompson

Alfred A. Knopf, 2013; $26.95;

originally published as Minnet Av En Smutsig Ängel, 2011

Henning Mankell is highly esteemed for his series of crime novels featuring police detective Kurt Wallander, a darkly brooding character, by turns brilliant and brutal, which he terminated by having his protagonist succumb to dementia. Mankell has long divided his time between Sweden and Mozambique, and with A Treacherous Paradise he turns to writing about his second home.

In 1904, eighteen-year-old Hanna Renström escapes poverty and famine in northern Sweden by working as a cook on a freighter bound for Australia through the Suez Canal. Impulsively, she marries the third mate, and when he dies hardly a month later from tropical fever, she jumps ship when it makes port at Lourenço Marques, in Portuguese East Africa. There, she is a rare commodity, a young and almost attractive white woman. She is soon the wife of a colonist who owns many businesses, not least O Paraiso (Paradise), the town’s most prosperous brothel. Once again she has married a man marked for early death, and this time, she becomes a widow with wealth beyond any dream she ever had as a child in Sweden.

But the brothel, with its black prostitutes and white customers, is anything but a “paradise.” Hanna learns bitter lessons about oppression, colonial, racial, and sexual. She is “living in a country which seemed to be founded on lies and hypocrisy.” As she resists these realities, she loses her identify as “Hanna” to become “Ana Negra (Black Ana).”

The origin of A Treacherous Paradise is a set of tax records in the archives of what is now Mozambique: a Swedish woman at this time did own a large brothel. Around this administrative entry, Mankell weaves a haunting morality tale which he carefully develops until it reaches an emotional culmination. Hanna Renström disappears, and the only trace she leaves is a diary, which begins, “Dreamt last night about what no longer is.”

Benjamin Franklin Martin is the Price Professor of History at LSU. His most recent book is Years of Plenty, Years of Want: France and the Legacy of the Great War (2013).