“In the Dordogne, but particularly in La Berthonie, the horizon is never far away and yet everything is always miles from everything else, which is how the region preserves its charm and which is also how it can become a prison in winter if you don’t have any cows to milk, any pigs to fatten or any chickens to slaughter. So the English who live in the Dordogne meet up in their informal clubs to do all sorts of things, but, more often than not, nothing in particular, while–as soon as six o’clock has struck–they quaff great quantities of all sorts of things alcoholic.”
Death in the Dordogne is the first in a series of mystery novels written by Louis Sanders concerning British ex-pats living in France. When I heard about these books, published by Serpent’s Tail, I knew that chances were I’d really enjoy them. I just finished Death in the Dordogne and I’m hooked.
The novel begins with a funeral of a French villager attended by the narrator, a British ex-pat, a Londoner who cashed in on the real estate bubble, and who now lives in the Dordogne and is considered the “newly installed Englishman.” He tries to “wriggle out” of the funeral, but he’s pressed into attending. Like many British ex-pats, he’s drawn to the fantasies and ideas of life in the French countryside and is shocked and disgruntled by the realities. The realities include freezing temperatures in an ancient house bought when his judgement was colored by romanticism, and images of a farmer’s wife who rather disgustingly stuffs ducks with food in order to make and sell foie gras. The narrator is just one of eight residents in the village of La Berthonie–a village that at one time boasted a population of 200, but this number has slowly dwindled down to the die-hard residents.
Perhaps the narrator just has too much time on his hands, but he begins to be bothered about the details of the death of Gaston, the strapping young man who met his supposedly accidental death while chopping wood in the forest. The funeral is a reminder in many ways that life (and death) in the bucolic village is real and not picture postcard perfect, but still overall the narrator “preferred to think back to the history books about the French peasantry in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.” These books were largely responsible for his mistaken notions about life in the French countryside.
When the narrator discovers that Gaston’s brother died under peculiar circumstances years earlier, this just provides fodder to the notion that there’s something odd about Gaston’s death. He speculates that Gaston was “killed to alleviate the boredom–if only momentarily–the boredom that hangs over these Dordogne evenings.” While he doesn’t exactly begin investigating, he does begin connecting with some of his more anti-social French neighbors, and this proves to be a big mistake.
Author Louis Sanders captures the ex-pat ambience to perfection. The other British outcasts patch together various social evenings–the dubious highlights of life for the British in the Dordogne, but for the most part, the narrator’s days are spent wondering if it’s too early to break open the alcohol. The narrator confesses to the reader that he “contemplate[s] with horror the few metres that lie between the fire and my favourite drink, a distance I will have to travel in the nightmarish cold in order to pour myself another drink. There isn’t any central heating; when I bought the house I still tended to confuse the downright uncomfortable with the picturesque.”
Largely oblivious to the fact he’s homesick for London, it finally begins to dawn on him that he is ultimately a stranger and an outcast, and that’s not likely to change. There’s one very funny moment when he realizes that the locals peg the other British ex-pats as a bit loony, and this is illustrated by the labels they are given. Then he realizes that he probably has a label too, and he admits to himself: “I was doing what I’d always wanted to do, which was, in a word: nothing.” But at the same time he wonders: “what am earth am I doing here?”
Death in the Dordogne is marvelously entertaining and slyly funny. The novel’s protagonist has just the right touch of pathetic sleaziness–from his endless evenings murky with alcohol to his cheesy attempts to ramp up his British eccentricities in a desperate attempt to impress and bed a French girl. In some ways the novel has the feel of a British cosy mystery–nothing too threatening, nothing too violent and the story is after all set in a village. But in this case the village is French, and murder is the trigger that leads the narrator to realize that he’s a ‘stranger in a strange land.’