European crime fiction in the crosshairs

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The man who dreamt of books
with wine as the narrative focus

Conversation with Robert Reumont

Sophie Colpaert


Sophie Colpaert: Robert Reumont, readers don't know you very well yet, could you introduce yourself?

Robert Reumont: The back cover of the novels says it all. I really was born in Charleroi , Belgium , in 1952, at a moment when people were celebrating the advent of the Beaujolais nouveau. Was that a sign? Probably. I have a degree in Romance philology, I'm a teacher, married with four children. Those who know say there's a part of me in the three main characters in my books. Like them I like to enjoy the good things in life, I'm outspoken, I can be rebellious and stir things up. Blundering, clumsy, dozy like Joseph, I cultivate the art of putting my foot in it. And like Joseph I don't always do so accidentally. As for him family also holds a vital place in my life. I share with chief inspector Boistôt and Wyvine a love of the truth. Injustice disgusts me as it does them. Hypocrisy, prudery, concern for appearances, greed and economic tyranny masked by productivity and efficiency make my flesh creep. Again like them, I'm keen on a lot of things, wine, travel, literature of course, and also films, sport, etc. Neither Wyvine, nor Placide, nor I will ever be a victim of boredom.

But there is a difference: Wyvine does things and asserts certain truths that I don't dare to do or say, regretfully. My heroine has a poise and courage which sometimes fail me. What she can inflict on a dirty lout or a stuck-up woman I've never had the cheek to, despite the real urge that's sometimes grabbed hold of me.

SC: How did you come to write crime novels?

RR: I didn't go straight into it, even though I've never thought of crime fiction as a second-class form. Quite the reverse. First of all I tried to write novels in which wine, which is prominent in many people's lives but ignored in literature (except by Rabelais and anecdotally by Colette), would be the narrative focus. In my first novel De si jolies robes, which was never published, the plot was deliberately simplified to direct the reader's attention to the flavour of Burgundy wines and the colourful, graphic language of wine.

Then repeated rejections from publishers made me think that a crime mystery in the context of wine might make the story more attractive, even absorbing (dare I say thrilling and exciting). In the first version of Coup de rouge en Touraine the plot was still only a pretext. I wanted to stop readers being so caught up in a convoluted riddle that they ignored my novel's joyful vinous and epicurean aspects.

It wasn't easy to find a publisher: one chance in 2000 I was told. So when Cheminements suggested I rework the crime plot a bit and make it more detailed, expand it, so that they could bring out Coup de rouge en Touraine as part of their crime list, I at once agreed enthusiastically. That took me two months of hard work in July and August. In late September Cheminements offered me a contract with the following observation: ‘… we think the changes are very appropriate.'

I was on my way. For the second novel Rouge sur blanc … , I was careful from the outset to construct a mystery that was stronger, more complex, well worked out, without subtracting from the novel any of the festive Rabelaisian atmosphere of good food and wine. Now I get loads of ideas. I write them down, sort through them, finesse them and keep the most interesting ones in reserve. It's really jolly, exciting.

SC: Who are your standout authors?

RR: I can think of a hundred writers. Albert Camus for his profound humanism, his revolt against injustice, his questioning around evil and the meaning of our existence. Molière for his hostility to hypocrisy. My narrator, chief inspector Boistôt often rages against hypocrites. Philippe Delerm for his cleverness in conjuring up life's small pleasures. Georges Simenon for the solidity and humanity of chief inspector Maigret, for his concern to discover ‘the naked man' who hides, protects himself behind disguises and masks. And then of course there's François Rabelais.

SC: Where do you get that knowledge and love of Rabelais which imbues the character of Boistôt and quickly infects his fans, readers included?

RR: I like François Rabelais a lot but no more than 30 other writers. No less either. The richness of his thought beneath an appearance of whimsy, his many-sided humour and his verbal inventiveness are extraordinary. And as the action of the first novel takes place in Touraine I found it interesting to give chief inspector Boistôt, who lives in Chinon forest, a keen interest in the author of ‘Gargantua ' . Apart from that little touch of originality I was able to give my narrator an extra cultural dimension. And above all I was able to trace indirectly certain elements of his personality: his love of independence and freedom, his humanism, his intellectual curiosity, his spirit of tolerance and his liking for the ‘dive bouteille' (divine bottle) and good food.

As soon as I got the idea halfway through the book I immediately reread Rabelais' work and took notes. I also saw in it the chance to allow readers to (re)discover an extremely rich body of work that we tend to overlook, or even forget about because of the language obstacle. It's a great opportunity to recall that we owe so many words to Rabelais, so many expressions like ‘ne savoir à quel saint se vouer' (not to know which way to turn), ‘sainte Nytouche' (goody-goody), ‘mouton de Panurge' (behave like sheep), and mottoes like ‘bien fou qui s'enivre jamais' (he's a right fool who never gets drunk) or ‘il faut boire pour la soif à venir' (drink in case you're thirsty later).

And finally the spirit of Rabelais' work chimes especially well with the happy epicurean atmosphere – slightly cheeky, warm and serious despite a humorous surface – which I try to make the touchstone of my novels.

SC: The supporting cast of characters are all very carefully drawn, most of them more than lifelike. Jean-Louis the Fleurie wine-grower (Le Crime nouveau est arrivé) communicates his peculiarities of speech to the reader. The Leders' strong Alsatian accent (Rouge sur blanc…), as it is transcribed, would make the sourest grouch lose his frown, and our mouths water at the table provided by the charming Solange, the magnificent cook in Coup de rouge sur Touraine. How do you produce such lifelike, authentic results?

RR: Of course there's no recipe. I'd be hard put to give a logical, unchallengeable explanation. I like those characters and don't view them as minor. Is that the explanation? I appreciate my minor characters, who are sometimes very close to people who really exist. I have a lot of fun with them, at least with some. And I easily start to feel sympathetic towards them. They very quickly begin to come to life in my mind. I can see them. I can see scenes, I can see those characters, their gestures, their faces. With them, because of them, I also relive excellent moments from holidays overflowing with human warmth and emotion. I relive encounters, times for exchanging, sharing, friendship, rich intense times, and funny episodes too.
And then naturally there's the work as well. A lot of work, just to choose the right detail that gives truth and weight to the characters.

SC: The teacher in Rouge sur blanc… with his tragic blindness and his endless gobbledegook. Is that a bit of revenge?

RR: Not a bit of it. A simple description, objective and desolate, of a reality I know too well. So I can talk about it straight, not in order to take revenge but to criticize abuses that sometimes have tragic consequences. It wasn't the Holy Spirit that prompted me to create that character but my day-to-day experience. Dozens of examples occur to me. People today are astounded at the monstrous gaps in children's reading and writing. But it's only the logical, inevitable consequence of certain ‘pedant/gogic' ranting. Over a period of 20 years I and others protested, complained, protested against the aberrations. To no avail. Today I've given up wearing myself out for nothing, I'm handing over to Boistôt and Wyvine to talk about wine in my novels. It's no more effective but a darn sight more entertaining and … fulfilling. A number of teachers have said to me: ‘You've written what a lot of people don't dare to say.' I'll conclude by adding that the most terrifying and dangerous ones are the teachers (fortunately there aren't many) who think they're model pedagogues too, take themselves very seriously and rage on with the same gobbledegook, the same grand theories and the same tragic blindness as the ‘pedant/gogue' in Rouge sur blanc… That said, I've also met teachers full of good sense. They exist as well.

SC: You have the knack of inventing extremely funny and very visual scenes. I'm thinking of the market scene in Coup de rouge sur Touraine, the accoutrements of Joseph the eternal dreamer, the punch-up with the criminals in Le Crime nouveau est arrivé. Have you had any proposals for tv or film adaptations?

RR: A large number of readers have already made the same observation and asked me the same question. A lot of people are struck by the very visual aspect of my writing. They tell me the characters and scenes would come over very well in a tv or cinema film. Several have advised or encouraged me to send my novels to producers. I'd like that a lot. It would be very interesting, exciting. Unfortunately I don't know anyone in the film business. And I don't have the time to make overtures without knowing who to approach or where precisely to look. But I'd definitely be very pleased if a producer or director were to consider it some day. It'd be a real honour. I wait and hope. All that matters is that my novels should fall into the right hands and be seen by the right eyes…

SC: How are your novels received in the wine-growing areas you describe?

RR: Very, very well everywhere. Coup de rouge en Touraine was serialized in the daily paper ‘La République du Centre-Ouest' and was very successful. When I stayed in the region local people talked enthusiastically about it without knowing I was the author. Rouge sur blanc … was ‘bookseller's choice' at the Forum bookshop, the biggest in Colmar . I was invited to the Colmar book fair and was welcomed very warmly. A local food magazine featured the La Flammerie restaurant in Ribeauvillé with Wyvine and Joseph as guides. And the proprietor herself gave me a copy. At the Auberge de l'Ill in Illhausern I had the pleasant surprise of discovering, when I read the bill, that the bottle of Vendanges tardives and the liqueur (an excellent pear one) were on the house. They wanted to thank me for setting an episode from the novel in their famous inn. In Fleurie in the Beaujolais area Le Crime nouveau est arrivé will go on sale in the Caveau de Fleurie as soon as it's opened. A wine-grower gives the novel to his best customers as a present. In Belgium the Bomal-Fleurie twinning committee and the wine-growers there gave me a very friendly welcome.

I'm finding there are lots of readers among wine-growers. And thanks to my novels the doors of cellars (sometimes very reputable ones) are opening, there are meetings, followed by unforgettable tastings and friendships are being formed. Fantastic! I'm especially glad about two things. First I'm very happy to see that the people who live in the wine-growing areas involved don't see themselves as being caricatured or betrayed, quite the opposite. Then, because of my novels I'm having interesting and enriching encounters with people who are extremely welcoming and warm. Quite frankly I wasn't expecting such a welcome.

SC: What plans, a fresh investigation by the trio of Placide, Wyvine and the irresistible Marnay?

RR: Some very precise plans. Flagrants délices (provisional title for the fourth novel) will come out ‘for the next grape harvest', the publisher has told me. The action takes place around Saumur. And at the moment I'm working on the fifth novel. My jolly trio will carry out a tricky investigation in Provence in the area around Gordes and Sénanque. I'd also like to send Placide and his team to Grand Meaulnes country, the area of the Sancerre wines and Pouilly-sur-Loire. It's a region full of tales of witches too… I'm looking forward as well to going with Wyvine to the beaches of Oléron, where she comes from. And my publisher, several readers and also Placide, Joseph and of course Wyvine dream of escaping to Belgium . In fact the more I travel around with my characters, the more they supply me with ideas.

>> Find Coup de rouge en Tourraine, Blanc sur rouge and Le crime nouveau est arrivé, by Robert Reumont there!

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