This summer I'm working on two new translations: Champagne Widows from the Winemaker Detective series by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen, and Minced, Marinated and Murdered from a new Gourmet Crimes series, by Noël Balen and Vanessa Barrot. Both of these mystery series are all about setting—the region, the food, the wine, the traditions. In the former, the setting is Champagne, and in the latter it is France's gourmet capital of Lyon.
I was reminded of some notes I made a while back about the Winemaker Detective series, and how the authors conveyed a sense of place so effectively in the first Winemaker Detective mystery, Treachery in Bordeaux. I'm sharing those ideas below. You can pick up a copy of Treachery in Bordeaux by clicking on the button—it's free.
1) Opening with setting. The authors chose to give an immediate sense of place in the opening paragraph. Note the hint of timelessness:
The morning was cool and radiant. A west wind had swept the clouds far inland to the gentle hills beyond the city of Bordeaux. Benjamin Cooker gave two whistles, one short, the other drawn out, and Bacchus appeared from the high grass on the riverbank… The Médoc was still wild, despite its well-ordered garden veneer, and it would always be that way. In the distance, a few low wisps of fog were finishing their lazy dance along the Gironde Estuary.
2) Focusing on details. Notice the use of something everyone can relate to, which immediately puts the readers right there in Bordeaux itself:
As they approached the limits of Médoc, traffic slowed little by little until it stopped entirely on the boulevards. Construction bogged the city down, disfiguring it everywhere with orange-yellow signs that looked like they belonged in a cheap carnival. Cranes stood with empty hooks, and aggressive bulldozers lumbered like large lazy insects. The tramway—silent, shiny and bright—would soon rise from this tangled mess that had mired the city for several months. Some irritated Bordeaux residents honked without any illusions of being able to move along, while others just put up with it silently.
3) Using the senses. The five of them have this way of grabbing the imagination:
The Rue des Faures smelled of lamb. A heavy aroma of spices and grilled meat rose up in thick swirls from the hodgepodge of Arab shops, suitcase salesmen and faded bistros.
4) Juxtaposing disparate elements. After a scene that advances the story, we return to the same street. Notice the modern and historic all mixed together, and the refined Cooker with his greasy sandwich:
When he stepped out of the workshop, he crossed the Place Saint-Michel and bought a lamb kebab from a tiny take-out. Then he went to sit at the base of the bell tower facing the church. Around him, a group of acne-faced teenagers were playing with a soft-drink can. Young Kabyles from northern Algeria formed another group under a basketball hoop near the Gothic bell tower. On the steps in front of the church, a couple of lovers whispered to each other. Nobody paid any attention to Benjamin Cooker. The sun was warm, and no heads turned to see him savor his too-fatty, too-spicy overcooked sandwich that should have ended up in the first garbage can he found.
5) Using dialogue. Not to be neglected to introduce elements of place:
“This is the first time I’ve been here. I had no idea that the development was so spread out,” Cooker noted, thinking it best to change the subject.
“It’s a ghost town, a concrete cemetery, that’s what it has become! And the middle classes get off on moving into a historical area. It’s all being bought up by architects, doctors, lawyers—people who think they know something. They invest in cultural heritage. Some heritage. Just junk!”
The authors use other techniques as well, such as character descriptions that compare and contrast with preconceived ideas readers may have about a place and the use of a painting compared to an actual place. They are particularly skilled at getting across a sense of actually being there, in the city of Bordeaux in transition, but also in the vineyards. I’d feel I were cheating you if I didn’t give you one more quote from among the actual grapevines:
The winemaker took advantage of the moment to get a closer look at the new cabernet franc stock that had just been planted on a small parcel. Tender sprouts were starting to bud; they would not give clusters for another two or three years. He glanced over the meticulous rows of vines, quickly judging the state of the soil composed of thick Gunz gravel, sand and clay and noted with pleasure that the vineyards had just been plowed. His eyes stopped for a moment on the Haut-Brion estate hilltop that dominated the neighborhood.
I’ll leave you to read it for the descriptions of the wines!