After a 25 year career as a foreign correspondent for The Guardian, a post once held by Alistair Cooke, and later for UPI Martin Walker has settled in to a very agreeable life as an author and unofficial Cultural Ambassador of Le Périgord, dividing his time between Washington, DC and Le Bugue.
We met for coffee and conversation on market day in Le Bugue.
Which came first, Bruno or the Dordogne?
The Dordogne came first. My wife and I have been visiting French friends in the area regularly since 1981 and we bought our own place 15 years ago. I began writing Bruno books in 2007, after I had made new friends in and around our small town, through the rugby and tennis clubs and the kindness of neighbours. Our local policeman, Pierrot, is also my tennis partner and the kind of wise country copper who never wears a gun, hates to arrest anybody, knows everybody and most of the secrets. He was the inspiration for Bruno, although he’s older, married and rather beefier around the tummy than Bruno. He’s also, like Bruno, a keen hunter and excellent cook.
What attracted you to the Périgord?
It was the combination of landscape and climate, good food and wine, all wrapped up in an extraordinary concentration of history from the pre-historic cave paintings of Lascaux to the Gallo-Roman remains at Perigueux, the castles of the hundred years war, the churches and local architecture. It was beguiling and intellectually fascinating, lush and intriguing, all at the same time, with a distinctive local culture that my wife and I find very appealing. And then there are the wonderful friends we have made here, including the wine makers and the tourist board people who appreciate the way my books bring tourists to the area. I suppose that is why they made me a chevalier of foie gras and an honorary ambassador of Perigord. They send me off to help promote their wines at wine fairs, to help present the new traveling exhibition of the Lascaux cave in the US and Canada, and even made me chairman of the jury for this year’s Prix Ragueneau culinary prize.
Why detective stories after journalism?
While still a journalist I had written several non-fiction books, on the history of the Cold war, on Gorbachev and Perestroika, on Bill Clinton and on US history, but coming to the Périgord made me want to write fiction, to describe this landscape and plunge into this history that intrigued me so much.
Did journalism help with writing the Bruno books?
Being a journalist and foreign correspondent meant I’m accustomed to diving into a foreign culture and trying to make sense of it. And a journalist cannot be shy so I’m also ready to ask questions, to interview people, and I enjoy spending time researching in archives like the Centre Jean Moulin in Bordeaux, a terrific archive of the French Resistance. And having spent my working life writing news stories , columns and feature pieces every day, I don’t get writer’s block.
Who are your favourite mystery authors and influences?
Sherlock Holmes was my first mystery author and he’s still the master. I read Raymond Chandler a lot, and a host of others from Ian Rankin to Iain Pears (excellent art mysteries), Donna Leon and Ellen Crosby’s terrific books set in the wine country of Virginia and many more. Alan Furst, Graham Greene, Geoffrey Household and John Le Carre are all up there in my pantheon. I’m not a great fan of gruesome mysteries that are so blood-filled they verge on the sadistic, nor on principal characters who are alcoholic, psychopathic or both. I like traditional heroes, which is the way I try to write Bruno.
Is cooking one of your skills?
I wish it were. I’m an enthusiastic, rather than a skilled cook, and I don’t mind eating my own mistakes. If my failures are too much for me, I have a helpful dog and a dozen chickens who seem to eat anything. I love cooking and I’m part of a circle of French male friends who take turns to cook for one another each week when the womenfolk go off for an evening of their own. That has forced me to widen my repertoire beyond the usual omelets, barbecue, chicken curries, traditional English breakfasts and spaghetti bolognese. We get quite adventurous with truffles, foie gras and the excellent fish in the local markets. Sometimes, one of us gets lucky fishing in the river and there’s nothing like fresh grilled trout.
Is there a cookbook coming?
The Bruno cookbook, a joint production with my wife Julia Watson, is being launched at the Frankfurt book fair. Julia, also a journalist, was food columnist for UPI and has written on food for the Washington Post and for Gourmet magazine, so all the good bits are hers and all the mistakes are mine. Having been married over thirty years, I thought I’d better say that.
A Conversation with Martin Walker Part II
TG: My gang and I are anxiously awaiting our day with you in Le Bugue. It has now become an annual, sold-out experience-an institution-in-waiting. In our initial conversation a few years ago we talked abut the origins of Bruno, the transition from journalist to novelist, and your passion for the cuisine of Le Périgord.
Today I’d like to talk about your process, how the grain of an idea, such as a visit to the truffle market, inspires you to research and write.
MW: Every novel starts with an idea that somehow sparks my creative juices in a way I find it hard to explain. It can be a visual image, an anecdote, something I read or a place I visit or a memory that suddenly is triggered. My first novel, The Caves of Perigord (which is not a Bruno story) came into my head after being awed by the 17,000-year-old cave paintings at the Lascaux cave just as I was reading a history of the local Resistance in World War Two. The two ideas came together and fertilised each other.
But I wanted to write more about this wondrous region and its profound emotional and spiritual impact on me to be living in a place where our human ancestors had lived and left their mark for seventy thousand years. And at my local tennis club I was playing a lot with Pierrot, our village policeman, who is also a great cook, an ex-soldier and a warm and wise man who hates to arrest anyone. So I had the setting of the Perigord and I had the inspiration for a lead character; but because he was a cop, it would have to be a mystery. Then I was in Paris in 2005 when the week-long riots of angry young immigrants erupted and I knew I wanted to tackle this theme, not just of the social strains of mass migration and the rise of the Front National, but of the history behind it, so I began to see a plot which became Bruno, Chief of Police, the first in the series,
The second Bruno novel, The Dark Vineyard, began with a visit to my favorite shop, the nearby Julien de Savignac wine store, with its array of Chateau Petrus and Angélus and Cheval Blanc costings thousands of euros a bottle. And I thought, what happens if a customer drops a 3,000- euro bottle and it breaks? At the time I was reading an environment study on water shortages in the Australian, Spanish Chilean and Californian wine districts, which made me think that global wine companies would be looking for wine districts with secure water supplies, like the Bergerac. So the novel began to take shape.
The third novel, Black Diamond, began with a visit to the truffle market in Sainte Alvère and hearing about the mounting concern over massive imports of low-quality Chinese truffles. At the same time, our local village sawmill had just been forced to close after years of protests by the Greens over environmental concerns.
The fourth novel, The Crowded Grave, began when I attended a lecture on nearby Neanderthal burials at the Museum of Prehistory in Les Eyzies, and I became interested in the long-running controversy about the way our Cro-Magnon ancestors replaced the Neanderthals about 30,000 years ago. And I wondered what better place for killers to hide a modern body than in an ancient grave, just the French press was reporting links between the ETA Basque militants in Spain and their Basque cousins in France. Once again, two and two had added together in my head and become five.
The fifth novel, The Devil’s Cave, began with my visit to a jazz concert inside the local Gouffre de Proumeyssac cave, and then I was standing on the bridge at Le Bugue watching the river and Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shallot came into my head, about a dead woman floating downstream in a boat.
The sixth novel, The Resistance Man, was triggered by my friend and neighbor Raymond, a retired officer of Gendarmes who had also served with French intelligence, who asked me one evening over a glass of scotch whether I had ever heard of the great train robbery of Neuvic in 1944. The Germans were trying to make off with the reserves of the Bank of France and Resistance ‘rescued’ the money, most of which disappeared. Who could resist such a story?
The seventh novel, The Children Return (Children of War in the UK edition), began when I met an elderly Jewish woman who told me how she and her brother had been hidden from the Nazis during the war at a remote local farm. This was the time when the French had troops in Afghanistan and the first jihadist terror attacks had begun to hit France, starting with French Jews. Some Muslim friends told me of their own concern about the growing militancy in some French mosques and of young French Muslims going to Iraq to fight. Once again, the past and present began to come together in my head.
The eighth novel, The Patriarch(UK edition A Dying Season) had its origins in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, when I was Moscow for The Guardian, and met some old French pilots who had fought against the Nazis in the Normandie-Niemen squadron which De Gaulle sent as a symbol of France’s wartime alliance. This had stayed in my head, and then I visited Le Thot, an open-air museum where they are trying to recreate the ancient breeds of animals who were here in the Vézère Valley at the time of the Lascaux cave paintings. They also have computerised re- creations of the animals with whom we can interact and are working on robotic versions and once again these themes came together to give me the idea for the novel.
The ninth novel, Fatal Pursuit, was handed to me a plate by my daughter Kate, a sports journalist who specializes in Formula One racing, who asked if I had ever heard of the lost Bugatti, a legendary car of which four examples were made. One was destroyed in a train crash, the second was bought for a fabulous but undisclosed sum by Ralph Lauren, and the third was recently bought by a Californian museum for $38 million, which makes it the most valuable car of all time. The fourth car disappeared in France in 1941, while being driven through the Perigord from Alsace to Bordeaux by one of two Bugatti racing drivers who were also in the Resistance. Who could resist a story like that?
The tenth novel, The Templars’ Last Secret, was triggered when Count Hubert de Commarque showed me around his wonderful ruined chateau of Commarque. It is built on a great rock that is honeycombed with caves containing some fabulous prehistoric engravings and sculptures and Commarque itself was entrusted to the Templars when one of the count’s ancestors went off to the Crusades. At once I knew I wanted to use this setting in a novel. Soon afterwards, I was reading some new research about the length of time that southern France spent under Muslim rule in the 8th century, and a friend gave me a copy of Stephen Howarth’s The Knights Templar. Then the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians over the historic origins of Jerusalem was getting under way and becoming politicized with the Arab League denying any Jewish role in the city’s foundings. So again, one thought combined with another and the outlines of a story began to take shape.
Putting these ideas together to make a book is a strange process, with each new idea re- arranging my thoughts, a bit like a game of pool or snooker when one strike of the cue ball can transform the pattern of balls on the table. And once you have this basic theme and a plot, then one has to adapt these ideas to the characters and organize the events in a coherent, credible and dramatic way. Thinking about what I have said about plots and themes probably undervalues the overwhelming importance for a writer of creating and developing characters who are real, who have their own private and inner lives, their own pasts and their own dreams. The plots are just the settings in which the real jewels are the characters who must have their own believable and recognizable personalities. Novels are above all about humans.
TG: Every time I’ve been with you in Le Bugue you have been approached by German tourists with at least one Bruno in hand for signature. Yu have sold 2 million copies in Germany. Is there a rational explanation?
The most important reason is that I have a wonderful publisher in the German language, the Swiss-based Diogenes, who took a big gamble on me by mounting a massive publicity and marketing campaign for my first Bruno novel. Diogenes has long been a favorite publishing house for German booksellers and they are great believers in the importance of personal appearances.
The founder of Diogenes, Daniel Keel, told me: ‘German readers want to see an author, to hear an author and get close enough to smell an author and establish a human connection.’ He asked me to commit to at least a month of author’s tours, and every year I now spend the months of May and October in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, appearing for a different bookstore or literary festival every day, meeting readers, doing radio and TV appearances, which meant I had to work hard on improving my schoolboy German. Diogenes has a whole department which does nothing but arrange these authors’ tours and they have a real impact.
I have now done more than 400 such events, with audiences as few as fifty or as many as 800 people. Sometimes we have to use theatres, churches or cinemas, so I have probably spoken in total to 50,000 people or more, and I have made a lot of friends among bookstores and readers. I have even met Germans who met one another in a bookstore where they were each buying a Bruno book, got talking and are now married and brought their new baby along to one of my readings.
The success of the Bruno cookbook means that many of these evening are now dinners or lunches with a menu and wine taken from the Bruno books. These events can be a lot of fun. I think I have seen more of Germany than most Germans, and thanks to the excellent German rail system, I can do a lot of writing on the trains. And one other clever stroke by Diogenes was that when they heard that I had a written a private guide for friends on how to spend a perfect week in the Perigord, my British and US publishers posted it on their websites. Diogenes, however, turned it into a 24-page booklet with color photos, printed 100,000 copies and inserted it into two of the novels – which sent the numbers of German visitors soaring to such an extent that the French government has now given me a gold medal for Bruno’s impact on tourism.
TG: How did you become fluent in German?
MW: I learned to sing Kurt Weil songs by heart, listening to lotte lenya and began reading der Spiegel each week.
TG: Returning to food you now have your own wine-discuss it and the winemaker? Is it available in America?
Julien and Caline Montfort, who run the Julien de Savignac wine company, not only sell wine but they also have their own family vineyards in the Bergerac and they invited me to join them in making and blending a cuvée Bruno red wine. We had a lovely time together, along with my friend Raymond the retired gendarme, selecting the grapes, testing and tasting the blends we wanted of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. I came up with the idea for the label, of Bruno’s dog, a basset hound, wearing a French policeman’s képi. We made 5,000 bottles the first year and arranged a special deal for German booksellers so they could offer it by the glass and also sell bottles at my readings. So more than half the wine we made went to Germany and the rest has been sold in France, which means it has been enough of a success that we are making more and are now also planning a Bruno’s Reserve, a wine of higher quality. We also want to sell it in the UK, which may be more difficult with Brexit. We shall see. Exporting wine to the US is a very complex business, with so many of the individual states having their own rules. The US may talk about free trade but in reality it is not so simple, particularly for a small producer.
A review by our dear, departed ami, "Dapper" Dick Ahearne
Martin Walker’s stories of a fictional village in France’s Perigord - hard by the Lascaux caves, with their astonishing wall paintings from 17,000-odd years ago - cover a lot of ground. Its sole policeman, one Bruno Courreges, has to date dealt with jihadists, Asian gang culture, art and antique forgers, war heroes gone bad, and Shoah survivors who were sheltered in the town.
The latest of Bruno’s adventures, FATAL PURSUIT, is centered on a far more obscure subculture - those who seek out, restore, and sell automotive rareties. In this case, one of the rarest: a Bugatti 57SC Atlantic. Four 57SC’s were made in the late thirties. Two are in American collections. In the last market transaction involving a 57SC, one was acquired a few years ago for an unpublished price, generally and reliably thought to be near $40 million.
One of the Atlantics disappeared during World War II. It was Bugatti’s personal car, and may have been sent by him from Alsace to Bordeaux to keep it out of the hands of the advancing Germans. Or not. It simply disappeared, and that genuine mystery is the heart of Bruno’s latest puzzler.
Walker makes this sketchy story wonderfully contemporary. Antique and classic car enthusiasts are notoriously picky about details: engine numbers, chassis numbers, rebuilt cars. As a car nut myself, I can assure a reader the book is impeccable in every such detail.
For normal readers, it evokes the very real world of grasping profiteers willing to go to any lengths to find “stuff” - from artwork to antique cars - to appeal to wealthy collectors. Or bling-seekers. And none too picky about how they satisfy the dreams of others.
Equipped as usual with his faithful dog, the support of his community, and a very accomplished woman who turns up looking for love, Bruno is led into this thicket by the murder of an old researcher who’s been following leads to the lost Bugatti Atlantic. He is successful but fatally naive: his clumsy attempt to squeeze a payoff out of information he’s found results in his death.
Not to worry, this tidbit does not give away the real mystery. To learn that, one passes by way of sprightly dialogue - written the way real people speak - and mouthwatering accounts of marvelous meals. Perigord meals: truffles fresh from the ground, foie gras from geese raised nearby, and countless bottles of delightful wine and eaux de vie. While there’s vicarious pleasure in keeping an eye on Bruno’s love life, and the (numerous) lovely, imaginative and skillful women who populate it.
The police chief of a small town in France’s Perigord is the unlikely – and marvelously human – lead character in eight novels by Martin Walker,a distinguished foreign correspondent and thinker.
They’re beautifully written, a pleasure to read. Bruno Courreges’ world, though in one of the oldest inhabited places on earth, is of today. Politics, Islamic terrorists, Asian gangs, the violent repercussions of France’s trauma during the Second World War years of surrender and resistance are part of it.
It’s also a world of fine food, especially Perigord’s famous truffles, and the fine wine of nearby vineyards. And tales – numerous tales – of Bruno’s colorful love life.
For anyone who knows or wishes to know France, Walker subtly and impeccably shows the people to be far different from the images English-speakers often have of seducers, double-dealers, and so on. These are real people, and there is more to be learned about their complex history here than in countless “serious” histories I’ve labored through attempting to understand it. Walker makes the learning fun.
Perigord is one of the few places on earth where humans have – demonstrably – lived for at least 35,000 years. Where the Lascaux caves were painted with wild animals, birds, and people around 17,000 years ago. Which the English tried desperately to conquer numerous times during the 14th/15th century Hundred Years’ War. Which was the scene of epic battles in the ‘40s between the French resistance and the Nazi occupiers.
Walker thrives in this unique world. Or his characters do, and part of his genius is the ability to draw us into their lives. It may come as a surprise that few foreign correspondents have succeeded at writing good novels. Though many have tried, among them some of the best. With his own magic of conception, imagination, and felicitous writing, Walker’s become an extraordinarily skillful exception.
–Richard Aherne, Paris