In the heart of Gascony, a fire ravages the warehouse of one of Armagnac s top estates, killing the master distiller. Wine expert Benjamin Cooker is called in to estimate the value of the losses. But Cooker and his assistant Virgile want to know more. Did the old alembic explode? Was it really an accident? Why is the estate owner Baron de Castayrac penniless? How legal are his dealings?
It is early in the new year, and Benjamin receives directions from an insurance company to investigate a devastating fire in the Armagnac area that has wiped out a large warehouse apparently full of stock. He finds out later that François, the master (and only) distiller employed by the estate, was killed during the fire that happened on Christmas Eve. He also finds out that the local agent for the company lives in the area and Virgile is dispatched to stay there, in part to see what he can find out.
Benjamin and Virgile start to investigate and find the estate owner, Baron de Castayrac, to be snobbish, standoffish and barely polite. It’s clear that he is short of money, unable to provide even the most basic hospitality (compared to the welcome Benjamin and Virgile had received from Philippe and Beatrice de Bouglon the day before). Benjamin tries not to judge about keeping such a château heated to any great level – it’s winter after all and he knows people with similar sized houses who complain about trying to keep such a place warm. However, not being offered even a cup of tea – something that would sooth Benjamin’s English soul – puts his nose out of joint.
As they investigate further they uncover undercurrents that are circulating in the area – that the Baron was not the only one to be sleeping around, that his two sons have plenty of reasons to resent him, as do other families in the area. Benjamin finds out that the Insurance company are right to suspect the Baron of some kind of fraud, but it seems that even after his arrest, it’s not the end of the story.
I’m not sure which came first – the TV programme or the books, but all the stories are short and quickly paced which makes it easy and fast to read. There is plenty of wine and food to be had, which makes a suitably stark contrast with the Baron, who wont even share a glass of water with his guests. After seeing so much of Benjamin’s family in the previous book (Mayhem in Margaux), in some ways it’s a shame that the family get put back in their box, but hopefully they’ll be seen again soon.
For once Virgile isn’t to be found mooning after some girl, but making friends with a talented rugby player, with whom he has lots in common, at the beginning of a promising professional career.
There’s plenty of discussions around Gascony food, traditions and Armagnac, such as the Blanche d’Armagnac. since I find it hard to describe the style of these books, I will provide an example of the style of the writing.
Enchanting frost crystals had formed around the leaded windows overlooking the estate’s pollarded plane trees. The water pipes had frozen, and the faucet was no longer working, but who cared? At Prada one was hardly inclined to drink water. Beatrice brought out some of her vintage jars of duck foie gras, appropriately truffled. A 1989 Suduiraut Cuvee Madame, exquisitely amber in colour, accompanied the feast.
I’ve found an interview with the authors from back in 2012 and can be found here.
A here’s an article on how Wine and (fictional) Murder seem to go hand in hand.