Book Review: ‘Grand Cru Heist’ by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen

'Grand Cru Heist' by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen

Grand Cru Heist by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen, Le French Book, New York, 2013

This short (149 pages) mystery novel was published in France in 2004 and translated into (American) English by the publisher in 2013.  I found it a quick, pleasant enough read but, having finished it, will not be returning to the series.  The main protagonist, wine connoisseur Benjamin Cooker, comes across as a bit of a dandy and a prig.  When he’s not quaffing vintage wines, he’s smoking fancy cigars or fine dining in some five-star restaurant.  He drives a classic Mercedes, his nameplate is copper, his doorbell bronze, his desk and inkstand are antique, his briefcase leather, his pen fountain, and even his index finger “elegant.”

And, boy, does he like to drink wine.  And talk about it, and think about it, and buy it, and sell it, and meet friends who make it, buy it, and sell it.  Failing all else, he’ll write about it in his precious notebook.  This is definitely not a book for readers with no interest in wine.

Even those who like this sort of thing and imagine Cooker as a sort of latter day Lord Peter Wimsey may find so much affectation stuffed into so little text rather suffocating.  At times I was ready to throw the book at the wall, especially when Cooker began to wax lyrical about yet another cigar variety, or prattle on yet again with a long list of his favourite vintages.

 The trouble is, there isn’t much else in this book apart from wine snobbery and various other snobberies.  Despite the title and cover illustration of an opened vault door, there is no heist.  Two thefts do take place ‘off camera’ and Cooker is simply told about them.  There are two murders but of characters who play minor roles and who feature only fleetingly.  In fact, all the characters are so cardboard and unreal, including Cooker, that it is hard to care about any of them.  Towards the end the authors pad the story out a bit with several pages about Cooker’s assistant Virgile and the latter’s depression over his young sister’s terminal illness.  But this sister plays no part in the story, we don’t even meet her — she’s just a name — so how can the reader possibly empathise?

I can see why this series is popular on French television as larking around vineyards in the South of France would come across well visually and provide undemanding family entertainment.  But on the page the authors’ descriptions fail to conjure up any such magic.  For all the endless chatter about wine, cigars, fine dining and classic cars, I never managed to taste the red wine nor smell the Cuban cigar smoke.

I give this mystery two stars out of five.

David Anderson

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