Book Review: Red-Handed in Romanée-Conti by Jean-Pierre Alaux, Noël Balen, Sally Pane

Red-Handed in Romanée-Conti by Jean-Pierre Alaux, Noël Balen, Sally Pane
The Winemaker Detective heads to Burgundy for the grape harvest when a hail storm strikes, and a body turns up. What dark family secrets are at play?

Received from Netgalley in exchange for a review.

This is the first time that we meet Benjamin’s (Benji) father Paul, as both Benjamin and Elizabeth are in London on one of the rare visits over. Benjamin’s brother and sister are, once again, nowhere to be seen, and it is therefore just the two of them who get to hear the news – he’s getting married again, this time to his nurse!


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#BookReview: Tainted Tokay by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noel Balen


Celebrating the success of the Cooker Guide, the Winemaker Detective Benjamin Cooker takes a cruise down the Danube with his wife and editor. Enjoying mythic Tokaji wines in Budapest, all is not what it seems. Meanwhile, Virgile must handle the business in Bordeaux, while Alexandrine is attacked.

From the publishers Le French Book, via Netgalley in exchange for a review.

Another shortish book about The Winemaker Detective and there’s a change of scene. Benjamin and Elizabeth are on holiday, taking a cruise down the Danube. It is at the expense of Benjamin’s publisher Claude who is travelling with his current girlfriend – a much younger, very sulky and hot headed woman, called Consuela who claims to be from Brazil.

Whilst sightseeing in Vienna, Benjamin and Elizabeth pick up a tour guide called Zoltan, who proves to be interesting, but dangerous. His flirtation with Consuela also threatens the relationship between her and Claude. The guide comes with them as they move forward on their trip, and the group have some problems, where both Claude and Elizabeth have their passports stolen.

Virgile remains at home and is charged with running things whilst Benjamin is away. Almost immediately, however, things go wrong, as Alexandrine (who runs the lab at the office) is viciously attacked and ends up in hospital. It doesn’t help that Didier – Virgil’s mortal enemy – keeps hanging around the hospital.  To date Alexandrine has ignored Virgile’s womanising reputation and it is initially thought that her attacker was her girlfriend Chloe. As the book progresses, it turns out that the reality is much more nasty and it takes much to persuade Alexandrine the issue is worth pursuing with the police.

Both issues get resolved in a satisfactory way, and Benjamin is reminded not to be on the bad side of his wife – for once in this series, she is involved in the resolution of Zoltan, the missing passports and how one of their guests on the river boat had ended up dead.

Whilst it’s nice to see that the book can be up to date (there are comments regarding the refugee issue as a result of the fighting in Syria), it’s a little disappointing that the supposedly gay Alexandrine is apparently easily seduced by a man when it looks like she’s been dumped by Chloe (echoes of Gigli anyone?). I don’t have a problem with gay characters but I do have one where it seems characters are not true to themselves.

Of course there are some meals, wine and cigars involved, including a reason why Austrian wines are not as popular as perhaps they should be (a story I remember from the late 1980s, early 1990s involving Austrian wine and Anti-Freeze, which when discovered made the bottom drop out of any market for the wine)

Book Review: Late Harvest Havoc by Jean-Pierre Alaux, Noël Balen, Sally Pane (Translation)

Late Harvest Havoc #winemaker #detective

Winter is in the air in Alsace and local customs are sowing trouble, piquing the curiosity of the famous winemaker from Bordeaux, Benjamin Cooker. While the wine expert and his assistant Virgile settle into their hotel in the old city of Colmar, distinguished vineyards are attacked. Is it revenge? The plot thickens when estates with no apparent connection to one another suffer the same sabotage just days prior to the late harvest. All of Alsace is in turmoil, plunged in the grip of suspicion that traces its roots back to the darkest hours of the German occupation. As he crosses back and forth into Germany from the Alsace he thought he knew so well, Cooker discovers a land of superstition, rivalry, and jealousy. Between tastings of the celebrated wines, he is drawn into the lives and intrigues of the inhabitants.

From the publishers Le French Book, via Netgalley in exchange for a review. Number 10 in the Winemaker Detective series – I have read and reviewed the previous books in this series and links to the reviews can be found at the bottom of this post.

This time Benjamin Cooker and Virgile Lanssien are in the Alsace region of France during the wintertime. Due to its location, ie. in France but bordering Germany and Switzerland, the Alsace region has alternated between German and French control over the centuries and reflects a mix of the 2 cultures.

The story starts with Benjamin looking around Strasbourg Cathedral, where he gets to flirt and show off to a local (female) tour guide – only  to witness her death from a heart attack minutes after the tour finishes. Her death generally puts him out of sorts for the rest of the book.

Benjamin and Virgile are in the area to check on and review the output from the Deutzler family estate, only to find a crippled head of the family and a deadly undercurrent of tension going on between his offspring and their spouses (and his nurse).

Someone is vandalising local vineyards just as the late harvest is about to start. There seems no pattern to the attacks, nothing to connect the damage at one estate to that of another attack miles away (sometimes on the same night). As Benjamin and Virgile dig deeper there’s the suspicion that the attacks are in retaliation to what happened during WWII and it soon transpires that whoever is involved knows more about viniture than meets the eye – the tools involved and the damage done takes some expertise in the wine world.

Meanwhile, someone seems to know that Cooker is in town – and considers him to be a threat – by slashing the tires on his car, making the pair resort to borrowing cars from various people

Now they are in a different region of France – and one so close to the border with Germany – it almost goes without saying that Benjamin and Virgile do not sting on sampling the local delicacies:

The small fried perch was always crusty, the baked fois gras was wonderfully creamy, and the squab was so tender, Benjamin would almost forget to put his fork to the delicate mushroom tart accompanying the dish.

in particular the cheese (Cooker seems to believe in “the smellier the better”):

He loved it particularly ripened, when the golden crust was nice and firm, and the rind had gone from soft to cream. As with wine, Benjamine Cooker assessed Munsters with his nose. He’d plunge his knife to reveal the center of this cheese from the Vosges Plateau. The more tenacious and rustic the aroma – even a tad repugnant – the more the cheese lover’s nose quivered.

As per usual, these are not long books, and don’t go into too much heavy detail as to motive etc. You are there to enjoy the scenery, the food, the smell of good cigars, and hopefully enjoy the challenge of who does what to whom, especially when people and places have long memories.

My reviews of the other books are as follows (in no specific order):

Grand Cru Heist

Nightmare in Burgundy

Deadly Tasting

Cognac Conspiracies

Flambe in Armagnac

Monmartre Mysteries

Backstabbing in Beaujolais

Mayhem in Margaux


Book Review: Backstabbing in Beaujolais by Jean-Pierre Alaux, Noël Balen

Backstabbing in BeaujolaisA business magnate calls on wine expert Benjamin Cooker to kickstart his new wine business in Beaujolais, sparking bitter rivalries. Can the Winemaker Detective and his assistant keep calculating real estate agents, taciturn winegrowers, dubious wine merchants and suspicious deaths from delaying delivery of the world-famous Beaujolais Nouveau?

Received from the publishers LeFrench Book via Netgalley in exchange for a review.

Another short investigation by Benjamin and Virgile, and a slight change in the format of the books just to keep things interesting – the story starts with a dead body, the goes back several months to introduce the back history, before announcing the killer.

Benjamin and Virgile have been commissioned by Guillaume Périthiard (a self made millionaire with a thing for watches) to help restore a wine estate in Beaujolais. Mr. Périthiard wants to return to the region where he grew up and become a major force in the wine making industry. However, not everyone is happy about his plans, in no small part because Périthiard is an ambitious man, and believes nothing cant be fixed without spending money.

Things take a turn for the worse when one of his new employees – poached from a competitor – dies while out hunting. Was it an accident or something more sinister?  Périthiard’s wife is threatening divorce, and Périthiard’s interest is being piqued by the wife of the local estate agent (who has managed to persuade Périthiard into investing in some restaurants as a side line).

While overseeing the restoration of the vines and wine making equipment it is up to Benjamin and Virgile to find out who is behind the murderous attempts to sabotage Mr. Périthiard’s business interests.

As usual there is some history and discussion of the Beaujolais wines, where we get to learn about the different types and the impact of the Nouveau run (as much of a marketing event in the 1990s as anything to do with wine) as well as some wonderful sounding meals. We also get to find that some of Cooker’s friends (a married couple of a successful writer and an artist) aren’t good cooks!

The murderer is identified as much by instinct and guess work as anything else, so it can seem to come rather suddenly, which can come as a surprise!

Additional Reviews

The Bowed Bookshelf

Kirstie Bryant

The Big Thrill

Book Review: Montmartre Mysteries by Jean-Pierre Alaux, Noël Balen, TR Sally Pane

monmartre mysteriesWine expert Benjamin Cooker travels to the French capital, where his is called to help care for some vineyards in Montmartre, a neighbourhood full of memories for him. He stops in on an old friend. Arthur Solacroup left the Foreign Legion to open a wine shop good enough to be in the Cooker Guide. But an attempted murder brings the past back into the present. But which past? The winemaker detective and his assistant Virgile want to know more, and their investigation leads them from the the sands of Djibouti to the vineyards of Côte du Rhône.

Published by Le French Book and obtained via Netgalley in exchange for a review.

Number 8 in the Winemaker Detective series, and it’s winter in Paris about a year after Mayhem In Margaux. Benjamin has been tempted to the capital by a cryptic note, asking for his help regarding some vines growing in the Bretonneau Hospital, near the middle of the city. The vines are perilously close to dying and threaten to deny Parisians a decent wine grown within reach.

Montmartre has loads of memories for Benjamin, who spent much of his younger years in the city, especially before getting married. Before his visit to the hospital that contains the vines, he visits an old acquaintance – Arthur, a wine merchant with a shady past in the French Foreign Legion. However, Benjamin’s visit interrupts an apparent robbery, which results in Arthur being dangerously injured and taken to the hospital.

Benjamin and Virgile investigate, and there is much discussion about regionality within France, local pride and expertise in the local food and drink. The discovery of those involved is of secondary concern in this story, and as usual is a vehicle to convey stories about France (Paris in this book), regional food and drink and how to spot “non-natives”. It also gives a chance to hear about the buying of truffles (individuals protecting their “black diamonds” in bags, only to be shown to the serious of heart) whilst giving some insight into wine tastings and what people will do to get on the good side of the influential and powerful.

Cooker is able to use his position in the wine community to find things out that the Police are unlikely to find out. However, Cooker and Virgile are always on the periphery of things, don’t get involved with the police investigation and don’t get proper “closure” as to the identification of the robber – however, they are in the position to sit back, and see things from the sidelines, making connections where the police are, perhaps, unable to do so.

After previous books focussing on either Cooker or Virgile, this book had a nice balance between the two men. Cooker manages to spend time with Elizabeth, and Virgile takes part (off set) in a triathlon and places well.  Virgile is out of place in Paris however, and no match of Parisian women, so for once he gets no further than flirting and even misses a trick with an older woman trying to pick him up in a hotel bar.  The book is short, and the denouement traditionally short, but finding out “whodunnit” is not the point of these books…..

Recommended for those who like the journey, with good food and wine, as much as, if not more than the destination.


Book Review: Flambé in Armagnac by Jean-Pierre Alaux, Noël Balen, Sally Pane

flambe in armagnacIn 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?

From Le French Press via Netgalley in exchange for a review. Number 7 in the Winemaker Detective Series.

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.



Book Review: Mayhem in Margaux by Jean-Pierre Alaux, Noël Balen, Sally Pane

mayhem in Margaux
It s summer in Bordeaux. There s a heat wave, the vineyards are suffering, vintners are on edge, and wine expert Benjamin Cooker s daughter is visiting. A tragic car accident draws the Winemaker Detective and his assistant Virgile into a case where the stakes are very personal, and they uncover some dirty secrets hiding behind the robe of some of Bordeaux s finest grand cru classe wines from Margaux

Published by Le French Book.  I received an ebook off Netgalley in exchange for a review. More about the authors here.

This is number 6 in The Winemaker Detective series, and it’s working out to be a long hot summer. Benjamin is on edge, his daughter is over from the US, and has started hanging around with Antoine Rinetti, the new estate manager for Château Gayroud-Valrose.  After Margaux and Rinetti are injured in a car crash – the latter fatally – further digging by Benjamin and Inspector Barbaroux shows that Rinetti was a money man who had made himself indispensable to the Mob,  and has to lie low.  He has made no friends, having made many people on the Château out of work, resulting in at least one person committing suicide. It puts a different light on the crash, which was caused by tampered brake lines, and puts the focus on Rinetti rather than Benjamin as a target.

Meanwhile Benjamin and Virgile are making site visits to vineyards as consultants due to the weather, and (based on a badly spelt tip off) visit the Château and find a badly ill illegal worker on site. This allows for the authorities to go on site and it is a mix of investigations by the police, and luck on Benjamin’s side, that they work out who the killer is.

As a side story, Benjamin has taken the usual annual holiday home with his wife Elizabeth and several friends.  Whilst the previous book focussed more on Virgile, this allows us to see a different side of the detective – his family and friends are more visible, we get to see Elizabeth more, and this is the first time we’ve met Margaux. Crocker is still (over) protective of his “little” girl and is torn when she makes friends with Virgile after her accident – he’s a bit of a womaniser, but he makes her laugh and pulls her out of her depression.  Of course there are now the mandatory epic meals, with matching wines, to be savoured over.

A good addition to the series, and satisfying to see the characters are becoming more rounded as the series moves on.


Book Review: Cognac Conspiracies by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen

cognac conspracies #wine #epicureThe heirs to one of the oldest Cognac estates in France face a hostile takeover by foreign investors. Renowned wine expert Benjamin Cooker is called in to audit the books. In what he thought was a sleepy provincial town, he is stonewalled, crosses paths with his first love, and stands up to high-level state officials keen on controlling the buyout. Meanwhile, irresistible Virgile mingles with the local population until a drowning changes the stakes

From Edelweiss in exchange for a review

The fifth in the series, and Benjamin is finding himself in uncharted territory and he’s not entirely comfortable. One of the oldest Cognac producers (the Lavoisier Château) has found itself with a minority shareholder in the form of the Chinese. Benjamin has been hired to do an audit of the winemaking capability to allow the Chinese to bring the business into the modern world. The Chinese  have not appreciated the history of the French Winemakers and that modernity takes a long time to trickle through. Not only is Benjamin getting nowhere with Marie-France (the primary one of the three siblings who own the business), but he is also having quiet meetings in churchyards with the French Government and getting pressure to scupper the deal.

Meanwhile there is an undercurrent of secrets, rumours and sexuality within the family, and Virgile, Benjamin’s assistant, is bearing the brunt of it. Where Benjamin makes no headway with the Little Pierre, the younger brother, it seems Pierre has taken a fancy to Virgile, and things are progressing well until Pierre is found drowned one morning.

Having left Virgile to see what he can find out, Benjamin is having lunch when he meets his first love, a British woman who has been living in France for over 10 years. His happy marriage with Elizabeth is no deterrent to Shelia, who repeatedly comes on to Benjamin – he declines the offer, and realises over the next few days that she is another person with secrets, including a son (Nathan) that is never mentioned in any of their conversations.

In the end the threads are pulled together in a rather more satisfying way than some of the previous books in the series and the book feels a little more rounded. This is technically a Benjamin Crocker book, but Virgile is finding out much more than Benjamin is now, and is central to finding out what’s going on.

Some other posts you might be interested in:

Deadly Tasting by Jean-Pierre Alaux, Noël Balen

Nightmare in Burgundy by Jean-Pierre Alaux, Noël Balen

Grand Cru Heist by Jean-Pierre Alaux, Noël Balen

Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé by Joanne Harris

The Lollipop Shoes by Joanne Harrislated

Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé by Joanne Harris

Book Review: Deadly Tasting by Jean-Pierre Alaux, Noël Balen

deadly tasting #wine #epicure #mysteryA serial killer is on the loose in Bordeaux. A local chief detective calls wine expert Benjamin Cooker to the crime scene of a brutal murder. The killer has left a strange calling card: twelve wine glasses lined up in a semi-circle with the first one filled with wine. Cooker is charged with the task of identifying the fabulous grand cru and is astonished by what he learns. A second victim is found, with two glasses filled. Is the killer intentionally leaving clues about his victims and his motives? Memories are jogged about the complicated history of Bordeaux during Nazi occupation. It was a dark time: weinfuhrers ruled the wine trade, while collaborationists and paramilitary organizations spread terror throughout the region. In present-day wine country, time is running out. Will Cooker and his young assistant Virgile solve the mystery before all twelve glasses are full?

#4 in the series, received in ebook format from Netgalley in exchange for a review.

Benjamin is not happy – he’s been put on a diet by his wife – and it’s the Cabbage Soup diet no less! (though the way it was described how Elizabeth cooked it – I was *so* prepared to at least try it once!). As usual there are few physical descriptions of the characters – I believe there is a TV tie in though I dont know which came first – apart from that Benjamin is in his 50s and overweight. He is under pressure at wok, with the amount of testing and tasting he and his company have to do – no mean feat when he’s on a diet and not allowed to drink (much)!

This is a fast paced book, where several murders are being discovered every day, and before anyone knows it, 6 people are dead or have had their graves desecrated. Benjamin is pulled in because with each death 12 glasses are laid out at the scene with increasing amounts of wine poured out. Benjamin is asked to identify the wine in the hope that it can help lead to the killer. It’s a 1942 vintage, which leads to talking about a very difficult time in French history. Virgile is coming into his own, as it is one of his contacts that puts them on the right track regarding the local factions and splinter groups during the war.

As usual with murder mysteries, the prime suspect is found almost by accident, and it’s only through digging further into the background, trying to find connections, that a discovery of betrayal, murder and the vagaries of war are found.

Have read several other books in this series and havent tired of it yet!


Book Review: Nightmare in Burgundy by Jean-Pierre Alaux

nightmareThe Winemaker Detective leaves his native Bordeaux to go to Burgundy for a dream wine tasting trip to France’s other key wine-making region. Between Beaune, Dijon and Nuits-Saint-Georges, it urns into a troubling nightmare when he stumbles upon a mystery revolving around messages from another era. What do they mean? What dark secrets from the deep past are haunting the Clos de Vougeot? Does blood need to be shed to sharpen people’s memory?

Received from Netgalley in exchange for a review. Translated from the French, it is the third in the Winemaker Detective series, following on from Grand Cru Heist.

Benjamin Cooker, half French, half English, finds himself in Burgundy where he is to receive the honour of  being named Chevalier du Tastevin by the Knights of the order (slogan ‘Never whine, always wine!’). He takes the opportunity to spend a few days in area, staying in the small town of Vougeot, in order to do some tastings of the local producers in order to prepare notes for his new book.

However, the trip is spoilt when two young men are shot dead in the process of spraying some graffiti on a wall – there has been a spate of slogans written in Latin on walls around the town. Benjamin cant resist trying to work out what these couplets mean and why they have been daubed on the walls.  He invites Virgile, his young and attractive assistant, to the town to lends a hand with the investigations, whilst allowing the younger man to continue his foray into wine tasting.

This is a shortish book, and not the first of the series. There is not much in terms of description of Cooker, which may have been done in a previous book (or perhaps because this is related to a TV series I’ve never heard of, it allows for anyone to be cast in the role).  Virgile isnt described much either, apart from being a terrible flirt and a hit with the women.

There are some great descriptions of the food eaten and the wine drunk (they seemed to be a little more detailed in the previous book), as well as some of the local traditions and fokelore. The denouement comes a little quick and the clues are a little tenuous to get to that point, but that is only a small point in an otherwise enjoyable and short book.