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When some barrels of wine in the Moniales Haut-Brion vineyard are contaminated, the owner turns for advice to his friend Benjamin Cooker, a highly talented winemaker and renowned writer of wine guides. Cooker and his new assistant Virgil work to save the wine but soon become convinced that the contamination was deliberate. With the reputation of the vineyard at stake, they must try to find out who would do this and why, while making sure the whole matter stays confidential. Meantime, Cooker finds out that a painting he owns and which he thought was unique may in fact be part of a set. As he tries to track down the other paintings he finds they may be hiding a mystery…
This is the first in a series of stories featuring Cooker and Virgil, set in the winemaking industry in France. Not much longer than novella length, these fall more or less into the ‘cosy’ category of crime fiction – amateur detectives, attractive setting and a mystery to solve. Being the first, quite a lot of space is taken up with introducing the main characters and the setting, and this means the actual investigation is somewhat relegated to the background. There’s also a bit too much technical information about the chemistry involved in wine-making for my liking – I prefer to think of peasants singing in the sunshine as they tramp the grapes (with very clean feet of course). But the book is set very much in the real world of wine-making as a modern industry, subject to all the pressures of profit and loss, and open to industrial sabotage and general skulduggery.
Cooker is an interesting character. He takes his role as a wine expert very seriously but also has time for the good things in life – antiques, fine dining, good cigars and, of course, the best of French wines. It’s this aspect that makes the books enjoyable, though probably best not to read while hungry! Happily married and pleasantly angst-free, he has taken on a young assistant to give him more time to do the things he enjoys. Virgil is straight out of college, eager to learn. He’s also attractive and likeable and I’m sure will have some romance in his life as the series develops.
I actually read the second in the series, The Grand Cru Heist, before this one and I’m rather glad I did. While this one is a good introduction, the actual mystery part is a bit weak and if I’d read it first I may not have been enthusiastic enough to read the others. However, knowing that in the second one, with the introductory spadework out of the way, there is more room for a fuller investigation element means that I’ll look forward to taking the occasional short break in France with Cooker in the future. Recommended as a light and pleasurable read for those days when you just want to chill out for a few hours with a glass of wine and some good company.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Le French Book.