Around the World in 80 Detectives

Mar 15, 2023 | 2023 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze

by Ian Moore

Not long after the French language translation of Death and Croissants was released, I was asked to attend a salon de polar, a festival of the ‘whodunnit’, here in rural France. Actually, I was asked not just to attend but to deliver a lecture on what constitutes a ‘cosy crime’ novel, the genre still being quite unheard of here. They wanted an expert’s opinion. Unfortunately, no expert was available, so they got me instead and in my poorly accented French – I did warn them that they could have the right words or a good accent, but that the event of both occurring at the same was unlikely – I gave them some rules.

There must be resolution, the murders should happen ‘off-stage’, no adult themes, specifically sex (several people in the audience rolled their eyes at this and said the genre must be very ‘English’ then), the detectives are generally amateurs, there will be plenty of red herrings and that the setting is all important.

It took me about ten years to realise that I had created, quite by accident, the perfect storm. I had the history, beauty, weather, and cuisine of the Loire Valley in France, having moved over from England, I had my background of over twenty years as a stand-up comedian, and I had my passion for the crime genre. Put the three together and I had the ingredients for exactly the kind of picturesque comedy caper I like to read or watch.

But, where to start?

Firstly, the comedy. England and France have a love-hate relationship built almost entirely, in my opinion, of English jealousy for French meteorology, geography, and a romantic and culinary reputation. The French might be jealous of the English, but the French rarely regard anyone except for the French, so the data isn’t available. By the way, I can say these things because I am both English and French.

I wanted these things to play out between the characters in a gentle, humorous way. That’s why the main male character, Richard, is very English: stiff upper lip, slightly unadventurous, stuck in his ways; and the main female character, Valérie, is very French: instinctive, passionate, dynamic. Together they make not only a formidable team but a comedy, will-they, won’t they? couple.

Those are the two main characters, with generally Valérie taking the detective lead and Richard caught up in her whirlwind, but it’s often forgotten that there is a third main character in the series. This third character is almost as important as Richard and Valérie, and that is the Follet Valley itself. Although I created the fictional Follet Valley, it is not so loosely based on the Val de Cher, part of the larger UNESCO World Heritage site of the Loire Valley.

The oft-forgotten fact of the Loire Valley is that there are two great rivers running through it, not just the better known namesake. For centuries the Loire, the longest river in France, has been the romantic centre piece, all regency chateaux and Joan of Arc. The less-heralded Cher, among its tributaries, has done more of the heavy lifting, with man-made trade routes extending further into the valley. The difference between the two rivers could be described as canonisation versus canalisation.

Starting slightly east of the river Cher, and away from some of the blousier chateaux, is the Chateau de Valençay. Built later than all the other valley chateaux, it reached prominence in the early nineteenth century when Napoleon asked his first minister and all-round fixer, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, to buy the place and use it as a hub of diplomacy. In the Second World War, the Louvre Museum of Paris hid a myriad of treasures in its cellars; the Germans could do nothing about it as Talleyrand, the family who owned it at the time, were also German royalty, so the chateau was deemed untouchable. (See Death at the Chateau released this year)

Last year, there was an exhibition dedicated to its wartime activities, adding to what is a wonderful living museum, with restored gardens and an animal park (plus a very reasonably priced restaurant, L’Orangerie) – all nicely off the beaten track. As is Chabris, nine miles away and back on the Cher. The bridge over the river in Chabris was the border between occupied France and Vichy France in the Second World War, and while nothing much happens there now, there are modest monuments to its strategic past, such as the Circuit Jeannot Bizeau, a guided tour of local Resistance activity named after a resistance fighter from the area and a few miles up the road is Gièvres, the site of a massive U.S. Army camp in WW1.

Just ten minutes downriver is Selles-sur-Cher. Cheese aficionados may recognise the name as one of the premier goat cheeses, exporting all around the world. Recently Selles-sur-Cher has regained attention in other areas, too. Its chateau has been largely renovated and hosts regular cultural and family events throughout the summer, while the twelfth-century Abbey, with its exterior carved friezes, dominates the town centre. Selles, as it’s known locally, has just celebrated 1,500 years of patrimoine (heritage and yet still, blissfully, remains quiet even at the height of summer.)

If you’re thinking of mingling with greater numbers, twenty minutes along the waterway is Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher. A large chateau sits on the hill overlooking the medieval town as you drive over the bridge, and Saint-Aignan also offers a peaceful lake cruise on the boat La Tasciaca from the River Cher to the Canal du Berry. But Saint-Aignan’s main attraction is the ZooParc de Beauval which last year became the centre of attention as twin Pandas were born there. Zoos are not everyone’s idea of a day out, but Beauval is ranked fourth in the world as a conservation zoo. Its massive enclosures regularly remodelled and an extensive, and successful, breeding programme is in place for the more endangered species.

A palette cleanser from the throngs at the zoo is a cruise west along the river gently drifting along as it takes you through the vineyards, small towns, and rolling fields of the valley. One of the best is a meal and cruise on La Bélandre, which takes you through the poster-boy chateaux of the Loire that is the Chateau de Chenonceau, built astride the river in a combination of Regency architecture and aqueduct practicalities. It’s an impressive place, and wherever the Loire Valley is mentioned a picture of the Chateau de Chenonceau is sure to follow.

What they usually fail to mention, though, is that it’s actually on the River Cher, which is presumably why the river took umbrage in 1940 and flooded the chateau itself. That’s the thing about the Cher. It all looks very calm on the surface but there’s plenty going on underneath.

So, with all of this on my doorstep, it’s less a question of looking for stories, as being disciplined enough not to overpack them. That’s what I mean when I talk about the setting being an important character, and as such, the human characters themselves must be strong enough not to be drowned out by their backdrop. Think of all the great crime books which could never be separated from their location. The underside of L.A. for Raymond Chandler’s crime noir gumshoe Marlowe, Harlem for Chester Himes’ Harlem Detectives, the various settings employed by Agatha Christie, the Nile, the Orient Express, Paris for Inspector Maigret, Oxford for Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series, Venice for Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti. In all these works, the setting is absolutely key.

Here are a few of my favourites that rely on place, so let’s go traveling with crime.

Andrea Camilleri’s wonderfully short-tempered Inspector Montalbano is based on the Mediterranean island of Sicily and each sun-bleached investigation is almost a paean to the beautiful island and its people.

One of my favourite crime authors is the French novelist and historian Fred Vargas. Her descriptions of place mirror her eccentric characters, whether in Paris, an Alpine village or even Canada and completely original.

Julia Chapman’s Dales Detective series is set in the Yorkshire Dales in the north of England and the descriptions of what can be a bleak, but beautiful and inspiring, landscape is spot on. Interestingly it has been re-invented by French television and transplanted to Brittany in Northern France.

If Agatha Christie practically invented the dangerous undercurrent of an English village, then the great MC Beaton carried on that tradition beautifully. Her Agatha Raisin novels are wonderful stories beautifully adorned with quirky, modern characters.

And so to the legend, Agatha Christie. Miss Marple rarely traveled outside of England, but the globe-trotting Hercule Poirot was a different matter. Agatha Christie cannot be bettered in terms of a two-line character description and she was just as potent with settings.

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Ian Moore is a stand-up comedian who regularly headlines at London’s world-famous Comedy Store. Ian lives in rural France and commutes back to the UK every week.

Disclosure: This post contains links to an affiliate program, for which we receive a few cents if you make purchases. KRL also receives free copies of most of the books that it reviews, that are provided in exchange for an honest review of the book.

1 Comment

  1. Sounds so good thank you for the review


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