Thursday 20 June 2024

Climate change comes to crime by Martin Walker

 The international bestseller explores how the backdrop of climate change in France has become important to Bruno’s story in his latest Dordogne Mystery.

Sherlock Holmes had his fogs. Hercule Poirot had ‘the chill of an early autumn morning.’ Maigret had those magical April days in Paris ‘when the sun bounced off the Seine.’ And Raymond Chandler had those hot dry Santa Anas ‘that come down through the mountain passes...On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks.’

We get climate change. Last summer the surface of the seas around the French and British coasts warmed by as much as five degrees, sending vast shoals of fish fleeing north to cooler waters. Evaporation soared and the westerly winds that carried the sodden air began to dump it as rain once as they reached high ground. And in France, that meant the Massif Central, the ancient volcanoes and sub-Alpine pastures that are the source of every French river from the Loire down to the Spanish border.

So, not for the first time, we had floods. Indeed, we now get them every year, cutting us off from the main road west to Bergerac and the vineyards. We cannot say we weren’t warned. Carved into the stone gateway at Limeuil, a town whose prosperity was built from the trade that boomed where the river Vezere met the much larger Dordogne, are the high points of floods in 1944, 1922 and 1898. They show us that the rivers were forty feet and higher than usual.

The last eighty years saw nothing like that, mainly because of the recurrent dams that have been built all the way up to the Massif, providing us with cheap electricity. But now, year after year, the dams are having to open the sluices to prevent overflows, so we get floods. We’ve had to remove the streetlamps along the quayside, and even evacuate the town’s famous aquarium.

And we get more and more forest fires, more and more days when you can smell them before you see the smoke and you keep an ear tuned to the radio for warnings. It’s almost too hot to stay outside and the water in the swimming pool starts to feel like a bath. Last year, it reached 43 Centigrade (108 degrees Fahrenheit) in my garden in the shade.

We also get hailstorms, so dense that within an hour the table in the courtyard is eight inches deep in hailstone the size of my thumb. We used to get them in late autumn, sometimes early enough to threaten the wine harvest. Now we get them in April and early May, viciously timed to devastate the young grapes on the vines. I have winemaker friends who lost two-thirds of their crop this spring. In the vineyards they say they used to reckon on one bad year in five, but in the last five years we had only one good vintage.

So more and more these days the weather has become a regular feature of my books, almost a character, just as the Perigord itself has become much more than a backdrop for the lives of Bruno, the chief of police of the small town of St Denis. I was hugely fortunate to stumble on this region, home to more prehistoric cave paintings and engravings than anywhere else on earth. Picasso came out of the 18,000-year-old art gallery of the Lascaux cave, saying, ‘We have learned nothing in all these thousands of years.’

The history never stopped. Julius Caesar’s legions fought the Gaul's here and captured a hilltop fort which then became a Roman oppidum, and then one of the guard posts Charlemagne built against Viking raids, and then the English and French battled over the castle for three hundred years. And then the French Catholics took up arms against the Protestants for another bloody century.

On top of all that, the region has become famous as one of the true heartlands of French cuisine, home to foie gras and the sublime black truffles, the confit de canard and the seven different types of strawberries, each protected by an Indication Géographique Protégée. ‘Great food and fine wines, this place is paradise on earth,’ said King Henri IV, the only French monarch to have given his name to a classic dish.

Naturally, therefore, Bruno is as much a cook as a policeman, and these days helps the volunteer firemen to control forest fires and organize evacuations from low ground and protect the town bridges from the floods. He’s not sure yet what he can do about the hailstorms but he’s working on it.

A Grave in the Woods by Martin Walker (Quercus Books) Out Now)

The long arm of history reaches into the present in Bruno's latest case when three sets of bones are discovered, buried deep in the woods outside the Dordogne town of St Denis. It appears that the remains have lain there since World War 2. Bruno must investigate who the bones belong to and whether their burial amounts to a war crime. Bruno has other concerns too. After weeks of heavy autumn rain, the normally tranquil Dordogne River has risen to record levels, compromising the upriver dams that control the Vezere that flows through St Denis, bringing the threat of a devastating flood. As ever, Bruno must rely on his wits, tenacity, and people skills to ensure that past wrongs do not result in present violence, and to keep his little town and its inhabitants safe from harm.

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