Death in the Truffle Wood by Pierre Magnan

Death in the Truffle Wood
Pierre Magnan (translated by Patricia Clancy)
First published in France,  Librairie Arthème Fayard, 1978
This edition 2005, Harvill Press
ISBN: 1843431904
201  pages
Score 5/5

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.

Banon, courtesy of their tourism website at http://www.village-banon.fr/gb_index.php 

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

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Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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8 Responses to Death in the Truffle Wood by Pierre Magnan

  1. Rich – Just from your description I’m getting a strong and effective sense of atmosphere. It is a shame more of Magnin’s work isn’t available in English….. or maybe I should just get better at French…

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  2. kathy d. says:

    Coincidentally, I just finished this book today. Enjoyed it a lot. Sense of place is very well done. I felt like I was in the “truffle” woods in Provence. Great characters, too from Alyre to Rosamunde and others. Was sad about Commissionaire Laviolette’s old friend. Laviolette is a great detective. But, much credit in the crime solving must be given where credit is due: to Roseline.
    Will look for more books by Magnan. This was my first outing.

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    • westwoodrich says:

      Hello Kathy – what a coincidence. Isn’t the scene with his friend a great set-piece?

      Magnan seems to have a fairly low profile in the UK, and The Messengers of Death seems to be the only other Laviolette in English. That features a postman digging his own grave amongst other oddness.

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  3. Maxine says:

    Sounds wonderful! I love the phrase ‘Provençal Gothic’ ! This is not the kind of book I usually read but I’ll take a look. I love the cover, it reminds me of a beloved childhood book “The Tree that Sat Down/The Stream that Stood Still” by Beverly Nicholls.

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  4. kathy d. says:

    There are non-Laviolette books, The Murdered House, Beyond the Grave and Innocence, available in English. Abe Books has several of these books in used condition.

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  5. kathy d. says:

    There are other Magnan books available in English, but probably not featuring Commissionaire Laviolette: The Murdered House, Beyond the Grave, and one I just read about, Innocence. I’ll definitely be looking for his books. Abe Books carries used books by Magnan. It’s a terrific resource.

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  6. westwoodrich says:

    I used to use Abe Books a lot (still do), but I got into Green Metropolis a while back and tend to try that first these days. I’m going to get myself Messengers of Death first, then maybe try the others.

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  7. Pingback: Pick of the month: July 2012 | Past Offences

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