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!

The following morning sees Benjamin get an emergency call to return to France and the Lemoine  estate in particular – the weather is predicted to be horrendous, with torrential rain and hailstorms, all at the most critical time of the harvest for a region brimming with Grand and Premier cru estates.

Elizabeth stays behind with her father in law and we get to see more of Elizabeth in this book, as it turns out Paul has been taken for a ride and has dumped by his fiancee. Over the course of the book, we have Elizabeth dealing with an old man with failing health, who realises he has been foolish and is in fact lonely and has lost many of his friends – a suddenly decided on car trip to France is soon knocked on the head and replaced with connecting him to the internet – a task he easily takes to (but which Benjamin is not impressed with).

Meanwhile, back in France, the area is trying to pull in the harvest before the predicted storms, and we get to see the difference between the traditional and the modern ways of sorting grapes….the traditional may be slower, but the modern way depends on whether it’s actually up and running in time to deal with unexpected events!

There is tension across the estates, as not all grapes have been brought in before the hail storms begin. Things are made worse when the naked body of one of the temp  woorkers  (Clotilde) is found up on the grounds of the local Abbey, and someone has tried to frame Benjamin by leaving her underwear in his car. It takes some less than discreet coversations with the local police for them to drop investigation Benjamin, but tensions continue, specifically on the Lemoine estate, where Marcel the father, Rafael the son, and one of the lead estate workers  Philippine as there seems to be some undercurrent as to who knew Clotilde and what if anything they had to do with her death.

It soon gets sorted out, with the denoument had at the dinner held for the end of the harvest and Benjamine’s relationship with the Limone estate is almost back on track.

Whilst I did enjoy the book, and there was a decent amount of information about the wine of the region and the specific estates, it was presented in a very dry manner in a short, dense section of the book and it did seem like I was reading a text book. The rest of the story was done with a light touch, especially when it comes to Benjamin’s family and I’m wondering if the two authors could balance up their writing a little.

 

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

tainted tokay

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: 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: 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.