The latest volume from the Hesperus Press book club is another murder mystery – in the form of the first in what I hope will be a new series of cases for Commissaire Dupin. “Death in Pont-Aven” is set in Brittany, in the artists’ territory of Concarneau, and intriguingly enough was first published in German. Add to that the fact that there is absolutely nothing to be found online about the author (except for this bald statement on Amazon: Jean-Luc Bannalec is a pseudonym; the author divides his time between Germany and the southern Finistère) and the plot thickens…! However, none of this has anything to do with the book, and so onward with that.

Let’s get the obvious references out of the way first of all: our detective, Commissaire Georges Dupin, shares a surname with one of the earliest protagonists of detective fiction, Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin. And the opening pages of the book are set in the Admiral Hotel, which featured in Simenon’s “Yellow Dog” (1931) when Maigret stayed there while investigating a murder. Having dealt with these nods to the past, we are introduced to Dupin: a Parisian exile, sent to Brittany because he doesn’t play the game, says what he thinks and is generally bad-tempered and wayward – particularly if he hasn’t had enough coffee! However, as he is drinking his third cafe a lait of the day, he receives a call to a murder – Pierre-Louis Pennec, the aged owner of a hotel with artistic history, has been found dead in the Central’s bar. He was an old man, so who would want to kill him? Dupin, along with his sidekicks Le Ber (who he likes and trusts) and Labat (who he can’t stand) starts to investigate – but then there is a break-in and another death. Dupin has to start digging deep into family and local histories, going back to the time of Gauguin and the artists colonies, to find out the motivations for the murder and track down the killers plus some unexpected loot…

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I have to say that this book was a real joy. I’ve become so jaded with crime novels over recent years, owing to the extreme violence of the plots; and although found “Spring Tide” refreshing and enjoyable, it *did* still have the odd moment when I had to let my eyes skim over the page. Not so with DIPA, though – it’s a much more traditional murder mystery, and for once the victim isn’t female! The killer isn’t some weird serial type with odd motivations – here, the plotting, the location, the psychology of the people in the village and their lives and history are the important things, and the book is so much more realistic and readable because of it.

Bannalec (whoever he – or she! – is) paints a wonderful picture (ha!) of the Breton landscape and people, so much so that I felt like jumping on the next ferry to go and spend some time there. The characters are beautifully drawn – the individual, grumpy Dupin, who knows what he’s doing but doesn’t let anybody else in on it; his understanding secretary Nolwenn, who can seemingly work miracles and sort out everything he needs instantly; the irritating Inspector Labat, who nevertheless is useful to Dupin in certain situations; the reliable Inspector Le Ber who tries to keep up to speed with his boss, but doesn’t always get there.

The local people are a lively bunch too – the Pennec family, who are still looking back to the time of Gauguin, when their hotel was founded by Marie-Jeanne Pennec who gave shelter to the artists staying at Pont-Aven; the locals, including Beauvois the local art historian; Pierre-Louis’ best friend Fragon Delon; Madame Lajoux, who virtually runs the hotel and is rumoured to have had an affair with the deceased old man; and the various doctors and forensic staff, all having to deal with Dupin’s temper. Add in the half-brother politician and various art experts from elsewhere, and you have a rich and entertaining cast.

“Der Spiegel” has rather facetiously described the book as “a cheerful, sun-drenched, stress-free whodunit thriller” which I think actually doesn’t do it justice. To be pedantic, it *isn’t* sun-drenched – Bannalec captures the moods of the coast and its weather in all its extremes; cheerful is a daft word to describe a murder mystery and although this book isn’t filled with gloom and torture, it has long-held family secrets and resentments. But it was stress-free in that I didn’t have to negotiate bloodthirsty murder and torture, it was peopled with appealing characters and a satisfying mystery, and in the end I suppose it was the modern equivalent of what some might call a “‘cosy read”.

I really enjoyed making the acquaintance of Georges Dupin and his team, and I hope there are more books about Concarneau and its detectives in the wings – whoever they’re written by!

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