isabelle bonnet, madame le commissaire in southern france

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the books & more

(no English version of the series available so far!)

In Fragolin she wanted to find herself again, she wanted to recover in body and soul and find out how to go on in life.

from: Madame le Commissaire und der verschwundene Engländer (own translation)

About Living and Dying in Provence

Isabelle Bonnet, in her mid-40s and single, travels to a small, sleepy village in the hinterland of the Côte d’Azur: this is where she spent her early childhood until the accidental death of her parents. The elegant Côte d’Azur, where the rich and the tourists cavort, is far away; from here the Mediterranean sea appears at most like a narrow, blue line on the distant horizon … The path to the secluded, lonely sandy beach where Isabelle loves to swim and sunbathe could be similar to the one on the cover picture … The sun is shining, the air is shimmering with heat … Everything becomes a little blurred … For the record: all the novels so far are set in summer!

In the fictional town of Fragolin, time seems to have stood still: there is a small hotel, a small guesthouse, a boulangerie-pâtisserie, a butcher’s shop, a café, a bistro … In front of the Hôtel de ville, the male inhabitants play boules … (Later, Isabelle is allowed to join in!) The small soap and souvenir shop for the few tourists who stray into Fragolin is run by Clodine, a school friend from Isabelle’s childhood … The smell of lavender and rosemary hangs in the air always and everywhere … a beautiful, small, picturesque idyll!

A romance novel could also begin such dramatically and mysteriously, but we are dealing with crime novels here: Isabelle Bonnet is the head of a top-secret anti-terrorist unit based in Paris that protects the President of France. 97 days and 6 hours ago (according to her own statement at the very beginning of the first novel) she was seriously injured in an explosive attack at the Arc de Triomphe. She turned down the offer of early retirement, but finally agreed to take time off to recover in the south of France from the consequences of her injuries (pain in her back and left leg, headaches, guilt, dizzy spells, panic attacks, nightmares …) – and to think about her future.

But things are not quite as serene as Isabelle had imagined: on the very second day of her stay, she receives a call from Maurice Balancourt, her all-powerful boss at the Paris Police nationale: a murder case in the tranquil town of Fragolin is to be handed over from the local gendarmerie to the Police nationale … and since there is no colleague at the spot at the moment, Maurice proposes to demote Isabelle to Madame le Commissaire at short notice so that she can take up the investigation … on the side … so that she doesn’t get bored … (Maurice, of course, quite openly pursues the goal of getting Isabelle back to her old post in Paris as soon as possible).

So Isabelle throws herself into the investigation and immediately comes into conflict with the Gendarmerie; by the way, such conflicts are the order of the day in French crime novels. Well: Isabelle takes it a bit slower, allows herself a bit of time for herself, sleeps in in the morning, enjoys her croissant and café au lait for breakfast, goes for a walk, relaxes in the sun … but then the case surprisingly picks up speed.

Besides the case and the consequences of her accident, Isabelle is also struggling with the shadows of the past. Her parents had an accident with their car when Isabelle was still small. Isabelle was the only one to survive the accident and was subsequently brought up by her grandmother in Lyon. In Fragolin, Isabelle refreshes her childhood memories, makes new friends and renews old acquaintances … and deals with the alleged accidental death of her parents. Her father, then mayor of Fragolin, has fought against a new settlement of holiday homes in a nature reserve. Isabelle begins to ask questions …

Back to her first mission: It begins in a holiday villa with a dead young woman and a missing Englishman who has rented the villa. The Gendarmerie has dutifully logged everything, investigated a little and is now looking for the Englishman who, in their view, obviously murdered the young woman … and here comes Isabelle and makes herself unpopular (see my note on the relationship between Police nationale and Gendarmerie) – which, however, does not bother her. As the head of an anti-terrorist unit, she has developed a very healthy self-confidence over the long years of her career.

Isabelle investigates in her own way: she pays attention to little things, draws conclusions, internalises statements and details, makes plausible – and succeeds! She not only solves the case, but also sheds light on the traffic accident in which her parents died.

Towards the end, she realises that she does not want to return to Paris for the time being, but will continue her temporary job in Fragolin with the special task of cold cases (Maurice has once again pulled the necessary strings in Paris!). It is a new beginning and a challenge to also learn to enjoy life again (la dolce vita in French) and to leave the consequences of the assassination behind.

The assassination: Isabelle’s Grand-Croix de la Légion d’Honneurs still lies somewhere among her things – hidden; she is ashamed because she believes that she let her team down in the assassination and is to blame for the death of some colleagues. The assassination has become a turning point in her life.

Isabelle has quite a lot of work; the books in the series deal with many crimes from (of course!) murder and multiple murder to corruption, blackmail and robberies, to child abuse and infiltration of the witness protection programme, to kidnapping, art forgery … There is always something new to come!

A few cases are real cold cases, which doesn’t make Isabelle any more popular with the local Gendarmerie and the local Police nationale in Toulon, but Isabelle holds her own. Some cases come to Isabelle directly from Paris via Maurice; Maurice still has hope that Isabelle will return to her old life. Yes – then there are also current cases that actually do not fall within Isabelle’s area of responsibility … (trouble with the Police nationale again!).

Talking about Maurice:
Maurice reminds me a lot of another powerful man from Paris who appears in a crime series that is also set in the south of France – in the Périgord. There is a chief de police, named Bruno, who can always count on his deus ex machina from Paris …

Is Isabelle a lone fighter?
No: she has an assistant – Sous-Brigadier Jacobert Apollinaire Eustache.

Isabelle’s intimate enemy – the head of the commissariat of the Police national in Toulon – has reluctantly detached him on Maurice’s orders when Isabelle needs support … a police officer who, in his view, is somewhat limited and at best good for sorting files in the archives. Stupid!

Even if Apollinaire looks like a joke from the outside, he is equipped with an eidetic memory, a gifted computer specialist, an ingenious administrator in the administrative jungle with unique organisational talent … and much more. Apollinaire is happy to have escaped work in the archives in Toulon, adores Isabelle – and falls in love … (not with Isabelle!). Maurice clarifies in the second novel of the series that Apollinaire is permanently transferred to Isabelle’s small commissariat in Fragolin.

There is more than enough action for Isabelle, who is still suffering from the after-effects of the assassination attempt, but has not forgotten her combat training and is training again: she is taken hostage, locked in a cellar where she almost starves to death and dies of thirst, she fights with hit men … but she survives (of course)!

Let’s move on to Isabelle’s love life:
She looks good and is fit. She was alone in Paris. She’s alone in Fragolin … But there’s the on-off relationship with Thierry Blès, the mayor. There are brief flirtations … and then there’s Rouven Mardrinac… a millionaire, a do-gooder, a benefactor, a male creature of luxury who desires Isabelle. Later they are joined by Nicolas, whom everyone in Fragolin thinks is a failed painter, but who is in fact a renowned international artist.

Isabelle can’t decide – she loves her freedom but is getting older – Thierry has already left her alone once and cheated on her – but comes back again. Isabelle hovers between the men and tries to establish a modern ménage à trois. It remains exciting at first: then there is a fatality … and finally?

The crimes are not totally off-the-wall: it’s about revenge, about greed for money, about jealousy, about cheated husbands and corrupt policemen … Sometimes the action overshoots the mark – but if it didn’t, it would be boring, wouldn’t it? Still, in the last two or three novels, a certain fatigue is noticeable … The cases are getting weird … Investigations drag on … Isabelle loses her wit.

So best start with the first novel and dream of Provence – whether on holiday or at home. The relaxed mixture of a bit of action, a bit of investigative work, modern relationships and, of course, The Good Life will have an effect. At some point it will be … whatever!

… and finally: A German author is behind these novels.

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a faint cold fear thrills through my veins ... william shakespeare