I discovered Pierre Magnan a couple of years ago thanks to my local library, and quickly formed a deep respect for his work. Unfortunately very few of them have made it into English translations.
Death in the Truffle Wood (Le commissaire dans la truffière) was the first of his books I encountered and I was delighted to find a copy in Henry Pordes Books on a recent trip to London. I love the cover by Nadine James, although maybe it makes the makes the book look more whimsical than it is.
The setting is the picturesque town of Banon in Provence in the early 70s. Obviously, beneath the rustic charm is a seething mass of rivalries, sexual infatuation, poverty and greed.
The story opens with a peasant farmer, Alyre Morelon, hunting for truffles in his woodland. His pig Roseline - ‘rarest of females that dug up truffles without eating them’ – brings him 1000 Francs a day between November and February every year, making him comparatively wealthy. However, Truffles are not the only thing Roseline discovers in the course of the story…
Meanwhile, Commissaire Laviolette arrives in Banon in his apple-green Vedette to unofficially investigate the disappearance of a number of foreign hippies from Banon. He is an engagingly modest policeman, described as ‘an individual as broad as he was tall, in overcoat and muffler’ … ‘unremarkable’. He takes a leisurely approach to begin with, treating the investigation almost as a holiday. However as soon as it becomes clear murder is afoot, he roars into action and unveils his motto: ‘No delay and no let-up are the lifeblood of the police force’.
There are touches of what the back cover calls ‘Provençal Gothic’ – kicking off with one of the oddest scenes I have ever read, in which a killer intimidates a man dressed as in a black beekeeper’s hat into hiding a body.
However, for me the main thing about Magnan is that he is superb at atmosphere. Chapter ten, in which the murderer is trapped in Banon by a series of mishaps due to a freak snowstorm, is a masterpiece of building tension.
‘The storm swept down the roadway in white swirls, breaking up as they crunched against the windscreen wipers, which skidded on the frost. the driver at the wheel had his face right up against the glass; he couldn’t recognise his own countryside. The weak, badly aligned headlights showed him trees swollen with snow, walls that looked as if they had been resurfaced from top to bottom with a white sticky layer that blocked up windows and raised levels, making the buildings look bigger and out of shape. He had to identify the landmarks out loud.
“Those must be Calut’s almond trees… This here, Jean Laine’s cabin, Ah! There’s César Blanc’s house ‘La Rabassière’!”‘
Sadly, Magnan died earlier this year aged 89. His last series book was Elegy for Laviolette. The Telegraph ran an obituary of Magnan, which you can read here.
Read this if you like: Fred Vargas. I’m told that Daniel Pennac is a similar writer, but have yet to investigate.
Final destination: A keeper
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.