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The French Are Back en Style

A trio of new books about la belle France center on truffles, wine, country houses — and murder

There are times when it seems that everyone is writing a book about the exact same thing. From out of nowhere comes a wave of novels with “piano” or “water” or “Tuscan” in the title, or a tsunami of thrillers about magicians or dwarves or affable vampires.

This year it’s books about France. Who can say why? Maybe it’s because collapsing economies have stripped the romance from Greece, Italy and Spain. Whatever the cause, three recent releases capture this Gallic renaissance with varying degrees of success.

Black Diamond - A Mystery of the French Countryside by Martin Walker

Martin Walker’s Black Diamond is a mystery set in the French countryside that reveals a facet of France — the fierce rivalries among newly arrived immigrant groups from Asia — of which few Americans are aware. Walker is the former editor-in-chief of UPI, and Black Diamond is the third installment in his series featuring Bruno Courrèges, a tough provincial police chief who also happens to be an enthusiastic chef and wine lover. The action hinges on a violent feud between Chinese and Vietnamese gangs vying for control of the Dordogne region’s vaunted truffle industry. You may not applaud Walker’s prose, but you have to admire his inventiveness: Crime novels featuring Sino-Viet disputes in the heart of the French truffle world are as rare as horse operas set in Lourdes.

One day, an old hunter chum of Bruno’s is found brutally murdered. A bon vivant, raconteur and truffle buff par excellence, the dead man was also an intelligence agent heavily involved in some of the more sordid foreign escapades in modern French history. Clearly, this is no burglary gone awry. As the story rolls along, a feud between a despicable aging industrialist and his too-good-to-be-true environmentalist son provides an engaging parallel narrative to the tale of the Asian gang war. A couple of femmes fatales spice up the action, and there’s a brothel specializing in orphans. (At this point, you get the feeling that the author is kind of piling it on.)

Instructive details abound on French food, hunting and history, but the dialogue is uninspired and the descriptive prose is sometimes quite painful: “He was accustomed to a blaze of passion, spending each night with a new lover and plunging into the relationship as if he were diving headlong into a river.” Sacre bleu, Monsieur Walkère! Nor is Bruno the sharpest couteau in the tiroir. Readers will spot the villain in this tale long before he does. But a mystery needn’t be letter-perfect to be enjoyable, and the unusual setting for Walker’s novel gives it an edge over generic whodunits set in Los Angeles, New York or the English countryside. I wouldn’t necessarily read every entry in this series, but I’m glad I read this one.

The House in France - A Memoir by Gully Wells

You’d be forgiven for assuming that a book titled The House in France features an actual house in France. Gully Wells’s memoir of that name does touch on the house in Provence where she spent many a summer with her mother, the acerbic journalist Dee Wells, who was born in Rhode Island but made her name as a broadcaster and newspaper columnist in England. Yet she spends the bulk of her ferociously self-involved narrative persuading you how fabulous her life has been.

Wells, a features editor at Condé Nast Traveler, is a talented writer without much to say — in this book, at any rate. Most of the action occurs offstage, in trendy milieus such as London, New York, Oxford and Paris. That leaves precious little to transpire in the house named La Migoua — haunted to this day, says Wells, by memories of her mother. Instead the writing focuses mainly on Gully’s brilliant stepfather — the predatory, satyr-like philosopher A. J. Ayer — and all the bright young things who lit up her childhood, among them novelist Martin Amis (who is just plain brilliant, Wells pauses frequently to remind us). A compulsive name-dropper — Did I tell you about running into Iris Murdoch? Or the party where I met Isaiah Berlin? — Wells constantly reminds us of her mother’s outrageous cleverness but supplies little evidence for it, leaving at least one main character from The House in France never fully realized.

The Lantern - A bewitching novel of secrets, lost love, perfume and Provence by Deborah Lawrenson

Another house in France — and quite a strange one at that — dominates The Lantern by British journalist Deborah Lawrenson. The novel is really two stories woven into one: a classic romantic yarn in the Rebecca tradition about a woman who meets Mr. Right and then begins to sense he’s Mr. Wrong, plus a harrowing ghost story set decades earlier. All this takes place in a house with the mellifluous moniker of Les Genévriers (The Juniper Trees).

When Eve, the English heroine of The Lantern, first meets the mysterious Dom while traveling in Switzerland, then moves into an abandoned manse they buy together in Provence, she’s understandably sure she’s found happiness. But ripples of uncertainty soon appear: Young female hitchhikers have been turning up dead in the region, and there is reason to believe that Dom may be involved. One strange coincidence follows another. Worse still, Les Genévriers appears to be haunted by the ghost of at least one dead woman, and possibly more.

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