"Treachery lurks within a heritage brandy making firm"
Reviewed by Clare O'Beara
Posted February 8, 2015
Fiction | Suspense
The return of the two winemaking detectives in lush French
surroundings is, as always, a pleasure. Benjamin Cooker,
the master vintner, and his assistant Virgile discover
The traditional brandy firm Lavoisier has been handed down
to three siblings, but one of them has sold his share to
China. Brandy is hugely valued in the Asian market and
Chinese firm investing, is calling a shareholders' meeting
to see how best to profit from the situation. Marie-
Lavoisier, a mature beauty who has entertained politicians
in her day, and her brother Pierre are disgusted by what
they see as betrayal of the family.
Cooker and Virgile accept the commission of assessing the
heritage brandy producer and aiming it towards
profitability. They find artisan methods instead of
ones, a domineering pair of siblings and rare golden
to make the angels weep. Casks have been stored since the
days of Napoleon, and nobody cares about the mildew on the
storehouse ceiling, a traditional feature in old wine
cellars. Tragically, the visit also finds a death on the
premises. This is ruled an accident, but is the bad news
too coincidental? Cooker had been about to cancel his
dealings with the Chinese, on principle, but Virgile is
determined to discover the truth.
As always the French country meals are amusing - a soup of
garden snails and nettles is too good to resist, we are
told - while fine dining proceeds in parallel. We also get
to wander around the historic town of Cognac on the
Charente river. The immersion in the surroundings is
with scents of wild mint or cut fennel deepening the
experience. Passions run high and love can last decades
turn to betrayal. I enjoy this Winemakers Detective
series more with every book. Jean Pierre Alaux and Noel
Balen have outdone themselves with COGNAC CONSPIRACIES,
expertly translated by Sally Pane.
The wit, locations and characters of these books are to be
The heirs to one of the oldest Cognac estates in France
a hostile takeover by foreign investors. Renowned wine
expert Benjamin Cooker is called in to audit the books. In
what he thought was a sleepy provincial town, he is
stonewalled, crosses paths with his first love, and stands
up to high-level state officials keen on controlling the
buyout. Meanwhile, irresistible Virgile mingles with the
local population until a drowning changes the stakes.
A Winemaker Detective Mystery
Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen
Translated by Sally Pane
(All rights reserved. First published in France as Le
dernier coup de Jarnac by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël
Balen, World copyright ©Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2004;
English translation copyright ©2015 Sally Pane; First
published in English in 2015 By Le French Book, Inc., New
A mere two hours earlier, internationally respected wine
expert Benjamin Cooker had kissed his wife good-bye, swung
by his offices on the Allées de Tourny in Bordeaux to pick
up his assistant, Virgile Lanssien, and steered his Mercedes
280 SL toward the N10 highway. His destination was Jarnac,
haut lieu of cognac production since the eighteen
hundreds and birthplace of former French President François
When they arrived at the Château Floyras gate, however, no
one came out to greet them. A woman's voice on the intercom
informed them that they could park in the lot behind the
wine warehouse. "The château is private property, and Miss
Lavoisier is not seeing anyone at this time." Benjamin had
not expected an overly warm reception, but to be so
summarily dismissed surprised him.
Virgile was clearly annoyed. "Boss, who do they think we
are: bulls in a china shop?"
"Thank goodness they didn't set the dogs on us," Benjamin
grumbled as he parked his convertible in the shade of an ash
tree with large drooping limbs.
"I have the feeling, sir, that the only bows we'll be
getting here will be from the trees!"
"That sums it up pretty well, my boy. I am expecting the
worst. That way, I won't be disappointed."
Virgile jumped out of the car, his shirt wrinkled and his
hair disheveled. The trip had been rather long, and his
boss's driving was far from smooth.
"Don't forget your jacket. And fix your getup. Straighten
the collar and button the shirt. A little decorum, please!
You'll need to use your charm to reassure the mistress of
Virgile smoothed his hair and straightened his shirt. His
slipped on his jacket, even though he was already feeling
too warm. The early May weather tempted him to take off a
layer or two, whereas Benjamin was ever faithful to his
Loden, his oxford shirts, and, on this morning, his fedora,
which gave him the air of an aging dandy.
"Always very fashionable, boss," his assistant said, looking
"‘The boor covers himself, the rich man or the fool adorns
himself, and the gentleman gets dressed.' Consider yourself
"Those are not your words, Mr. Cooker."
"That's right. Honoré de Balzac."
"Ah, yes, the guy who became disillusioned."
"You never cease to surprise me, Virgile."
They found their way to the office, which was dominated by a
tall wooden staircase that smelled of polish and ambrosia.
On the walls, old advertisements extolled the merits of
Lavoisier Cognacs with slogans reminiscent of Radio Paris
during the Vichy regime. The yellowed posters read
"Lavoisier Cognac? Like velvet on the throat!" and "There is
nothing more distinguished than Lavoisier Cognac!"
"Cheesy," Virgile whispered, and Benjamin put a finger to
his lips. They heard footsteps coming down the stairs. An
elegant-looking man appeared in a tweed vest, bottle-green
corduroy slacks, and a cashmere sweater. He was holding a
"Pierre Lavoisier. Mr. Cooker, I presume?"
Benjamin shook his hand and said, "This is my associate,
The man, who appeared to be in his forties, adjusted his
gold-rimmed glasses and gave the winemaker's assistant a
thorough look-over before moving his lips almost
imperceptibly. It was difficult to tell whether he was
smiling or brooding.
"Beauty is the promise of happiness, is it not?"
"That's exactly what Stendhal said," replied Benjamin,
always confident of his literary knowledge.
Pierre Lavoisier began to tremble ever so slightly, and
sweat beads formed on his forehead. So, Benjamin thought, he
didn't know how to play this game. Arrogance was not his
métier, much less pedantry.
"My sister will see you, if you will kindly wait here," was
all that he said before leaving. "Have a seat, please."
"We're not really tired," Benjamin responded as he inspected
a large lithograph of Jarnac in 1830. The winemaker, a
connoisseur of antiques and an occasional historian, reached
for his glasses. With great interest, he examined this
panoramic view of a former chateau, which had been
sacrificed for a suspension bridge spanning the Charente
River. On the embankments, imposing homes reflected the good
fortune of their owners. Along the river's edge, only a few
trees dared to tip their boughs, lest they hinder the
passage of the barges. Benjamin took a few steps back to
better appreciate it and then turned his attention to a
family photo. He recognized Pierre, standing proudly next to
a beautiful woman with blonde hair. Seated in front of them
was an elderly man—presumably the patriarch. Off to
one side was another man, whom Benjamin presumed was the
"Strange, very strange," Benjamin mumbled. Virgile wasn't
paying much attention. He was busy staring out the window at
this Pierre, who had undressed him with his eyes, like a
"There's something suspicious about him."
"What's that, my boy?"
"I'm saying that he's strange, too."
The door opened, and Marie-France entered the room. She was
wearing a pink silk suit that complemented her astonishingly
radiant complexion. Her wrists and neck were unadorned, but
she had several extravagant diamond, sapphire, and ruby
rings on her fingers. Her handshake was firm and formal. Ms.
Lavoisier knew how to hold her own.
"So, gentlemen, what can I do for you?" Benjamin shot a
glance at his assistant before tactfully and a bit solemnly
explaining the assignment he had been given. He confessed
that he had not met his client, Shiyi Cheng, in person.
"We have only exchanged correspondence," the winemaker said,
hoping to gain a semblance of consideration from Lavoisier.
Her pale eyes were making him uneasy. "I believe your
shareholder simply wishes to know the status of the accounts."
"I don't have to tell you that there are certified public
accountants for that, Mr. Cooker."
She lashed out his name, and Benjamin could almost hear a
whip cracking. Then her eyes fell on Virgile. She stared not
at his face, but at his body, from sternum to crotch.
Benjamin could feel his assistant's embarrassment. Virgile
crossed his legs and pulled himself straighter in his chair
as she continued her indecent and perverse inspection.
Benjamin tried to correct himself. "Perhaps I did not make
myself clear, Ms. Lavoisier. Our assignment has more to do
with how we can help the company evolve. We're here to study
the business. Cognac is going through difficult times. I
hope, in the framework of this mission, you will consider us
allies, rather than enemies."
"You can be sure, sir, that I have always chosen my allies,
and I don't let anyone impose them on me. Allow me to point
out that your so-called mission is in no way endorsed by the
Lavoisier Cognacs Board of Directors. I could throw you out,
but I have too much respect for your knowledge and skills,
which I know are extensive. However, Mr. Cooker, I strongly
advise you not to overstep the bounds of what you
call—what was it again?—your study and what we
should or should not be doing to further this proposed
evolution of our company."
Benjamin refused to be deterred. He employed the
persuasive—and clever—diplomacy that he was
"Thank you, Ms. Lavoisier, for your valuable cooperation. We
will try, my associate and I, to do nothing to hinder your
work, and we will foster the best possible atmosphere for a
profitable collaboration. Isn't that right, Virgile?"
Marie-France Lavoisier studied the young man with the eyes
of a raptor ready to dismember its carrion. Virgile, clearly
aware that he was almost in the clutches of this femme
fatale, managed only a stammered response: "Ma'am, our...
our...interests are mutual."
"Mutual? You're getting ahead of yourself, my boy. Allow me
this familiarity, because you could be my son."
"I take that as a compliment, ma'am."
"Marie-France." The woman corrected Virgile with a sweet and
Virgile thrust out his chest a bit, and one of his shirt
buttons came undone. Benjamin glimpsed a bit of tanned skin
and pectoral muscle. Marie-France crossed and uncrossed her
legs. Benjamin pretended that he hadn't seen a thing.
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