I read to escape. Not that I have the kind of life one would want to escape — I have a great job and I live in one of the most beautiful places on earth. Since childhood, however, I have been fascinated by the alternative realities I can enter by picking up a book. I imagined myself Jo March, squirreled away in the attic with a supply of apples and a stack of books.
Jo’s picks were the so-called blood and thunder books, the popular crime and adventure stories of the 19th century. Following in Jo’s footsteps, I grew up reading a lot of murder mysteries.
This time of year, I love to read mysteries set in sunny European locales. Donna Leon is the queen of such mysteries, with 26 novels in her Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery series set in Venice. Elegant, civilized, and humane, Brunetti ensures that the violence won’t overwhelm the charm; he almost always makes it home for dinner. The first book in the series is Death at La Fenice, set in the gorgeous opera house that burned down in 1996. (You can read about the fire and lots of quirky Venetians in The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt.)
Set in a small rural town in the Dordogne in the South of France, Martin Walker’s series about Bruno, the chief of police everyone knows by his first name, is thoroughly French. History, traditions, food, and wine are equally celebrated. Don’t read on an empty stomach! The descriptions of the “informal” four-course dinners that Bruno cooks for his friends will make your mouth water. First in the series is Bruno, Chief of Police.
Recently I discovered Death in Brittany by Jean-Luc Bannalec, a relative newcomer with only four books in his series about cranky Commissaire George Dupin. Brittany, the westernmost peninsula of France at the mouth of the English Channel, is practically a character in these books. Dupin, a transplanted Parisian, gradually learns more and more about Brittany and Bretons, as we do along with him.
The coast of Brittany is famous for its light, which drew artists in the 19th century, including Gauguin. Thus we have an art mystery, with an art historian as one of the chief suspects. Dupin is a wonderful protagonist who doesn’t suffer fools gladly and is always on the hunt for excellent, strong coffee. Cantankerous as he is, Dupin relies heavily on his uncannily efficient secretary, Nollwen, whom we never meet except on the phone. Although he is constantly in trouble with the higher-ups, Dupin, like all great fictional detectives, always solves the case.
All of these books are available at CLAMS libraries including Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet, and Eastham.
Nan Cinnater is lead librarian at the Provincetown Public Library.