Martin Walker is the author of thirteen non-fiction books that draw on his experience in global affairs. He has written about the cold war, Russia, Iraq, and on the responsibilities inherent in the power of the press. Walker has written for The New York Times and for The New Yorker. This background shows in the manner in which he builds the story in BRUNO, CHIEF OF POLICE.
Benoit Courreges is the sole police officer in the village of St. Denis. “Chief” is not his rank but in the minds of the locals whom he serves and protects he holds that exalted office.
For the most part, Bruno’s job is simple – he protects the people of the area from the rules and regulations imposed by the government and, in particular, from those levied by the guidelines of the European Union. Market day in St. Denis is particularly busy for Bruno. Most of the food, the cheese, the wine, the sausages, will be seized by the EU inspectors unless Bruno can distract them. Bruno is part of an early warning system created by the police in the small towns because the EU restrictions would deprive the bakers, the farmers, the wine makers, and the butchers of their income. Bruno takes care of his people and they take care of Bruno.
Among Bruno’s tasks is the organization of the various patriotic celebrations that St. Denis holds in the course of the year. Flags are brought out, school children are lined up, and the oldest of the citizens are honored for their service to France all those years ago when Germany occupied their land. At each parade, Jean-Baptiste of the bicycle shop carries the Tricolor and his enemy, Bachelot, carries the flag with the cross of Lorraine, the emblem of DeGaulle and the Free French. They fought to free France but in different ways and they have not spoken for sixty years. Things rarely change in St. Denis.
But change does come to St. Denis, a place no longer safe from the problems of the wider world. Drugs are being smuggled into the area but Bruno does not know by whom. The Front National is a fascist group determined to remove all immigrants from French soil; they want the children born in France to be deprived of their French citizenship and to be removed to the countries from which their ancestors came.
Fear comes to St. Denis with the murder of Hamid al-Bakr. Hamid was an old man, the father of the math teacher at the local school and the grandfather of Karim, the owner of the local cafe. The family originated in Algeria but Hamid had won the Croix de Guerre for his service in the military during the German occupation. Hamid had been brutally killed but it becomes more than the murder of an old man when Bruno realizes that a swastika has been carved into his chest.
Up to this point in the story, Walker has been building a world. With the murder of Hamid the story opens. While the past may be prologue in most circumstances, in Walker’s story the past comes roaring into St. Denis with a vengeance, defining the present.
“Bruno read on….He knew about the atrocities like the one at Oradour-sur-Glane, a village to the north where German troops, in reprisal for the death of a German officer, had locked hundreds of women and children in the church and set it on fire….” How did the murder of an old man lead the people of St. Denis back to the worst part of France’s history?
A second book in the Bruno series has been published recently. Walker makes sure that the reader knows that neither Bruno nor his quiet corner of the world are innocents. The quiet village that seems from another time when the book opens is fully a part of the twenty-first century by the end. I look forward to reading the next book in the Bruno series.