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It’s a Mystery: “Everything is hard before it’s easy”

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The Templars’ Last Secret
By Martin Walker
Knopf, 2017

A Talent for Murder
By Andrew Wilson
Atria, 2017

The Templars’ Last Secret is the tenth mystery (after 2016’s Fatal Pursuit) to feature Benoît Courrèges, known to everyone as Bruno, the Chief of Police in the small town of St. Denis in the Périgord region of France. As it opens, dawn is breaking and Bruno is jogging with his basset hound, Balzac, in the springtime woods around his home. Afterwards, he prepares a breakfast of boiled eggs (freshly laid), a toasted baguette and coffee. As he eats, he listens to the radio. He’s annoyed to hear that an inquiy into allegations of pedophilia in a church-run children’s home led by Chief Detective Jean-Jacques Jalipeau (J-J to one and all) has been “insensitive and dilatory”:

Above all, and unlike many in the Police Nationale, J-J did not treat a municipal policeman like Bruno as a lower form of life. He’d come to value Bruno’s profound knowledge of the people of the commune of St. Denis…. He accepted Bruno’s idiosyncratic way of doing his job…. Whatever the radio might be reporting, J-J was old enough and experienced enough to take care of himself. If he needed Bruno’s help, he knew he would only have to ask.

As he contemplates his day’s priorities, a call comes in that a woman’s body has been found beneath the ramparts of the old fortress known as the Chateau de Commarque. Once there, Bruno meets up with Fabiola the doctor in the region, and the chateau’s owner, the Count of Commarque. They contemplate the body; the woman is unknown to the Count. Perhaps, he says, she was a “Templar enthusiast.” Although the site is a favorite of Bruno’s, the term is new to him. According to the Count, the ancient stronghold previously belonged to the Knights Templar, a trans-national, military-religious order founded in the twelfth century. It was entrusted to them by an ancestor who went off to the Crusades. The history of the Templars includes a legend of lost treasure that continues to attract unwelcome looters to the region. Ironically, he adds,

“And I didn’t inherit this place, you know. I had to buy it back.”

“And you’re doing well by it,” Bruno said, and meant it. He admired the research and restoration work the count had carried out for three decades.

Did the woman fall or was she pushed? Before Bruno can begin his investigation, he is summoned to the mayor’s office. There, he is introduced to a striking young woman, Amélie Plessis, from the Ministry of Justice in Paris. It turns out that Mademoiselle Plessis will be his shadow for two weeks. Furthermore, it’s an order not a request. But, as the mayor says, adopting a kinder tone:

Look on the bright side, Bruno. When she logs all those drives you have to make, perhaps those idiots in the capital will finally realize that this commune alone is larger than Paris. And she’s a protégée of the new minister. So she has piston, political influence.

Working together turns out to be a lot pleasanter than Bruno anticipated. She has some twenty-first century communications skills that, he must admit, are quite useful. Not the least of her charms is to put Bruno on Facebook! As he and Amélie begin digging, they discover that the deceased woman is Leah Ben-Ari, a French born Israeli archaeologist who was ten weeks pregnant. She had a long relationship with a Palestinian Saïd al-Husayni. Most significantly, she was almost certainly murdered because she was searching for a religious artifact tied to the Middle East, the possession of which could have deadly repercussions there—not to mention in St. Denis.

The plot thickens when Islamic terrorists rear their ugly heads. A noted Templar scholar, introduced to Amélie and Bruno by the Count, is found near death. He was tortured by the terrorists. There are signs that whatever they were looking for is connected to the dead woman. This serves to heighten the pressure on Bruno to untangle this deadly web of intrigue and closely guarded confidences—some of them centuries old—before there are any more casualties.

The Templars’ Last Secret is a highly enjoyable, complicated journey of suspense. It’s enhanced by the rich pleasures of gourmet food and elegant wine that Bruno always serves up with unbridled joy. Another winner from Monsieur Walker.

It might seem like madness or sheer folly or a bit of both that I am, once again, focused on Dame Agatha Christie That’s because of A Talent for Murder, a compelling novel narrated by her and focusing on her ten-day disappearance. “Ma foi,” as Poirot would say, it’s only forty years after her death and in the school of detective fiction she remains Head Girl.

It is 1926 and Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, with its highly original solution, has precipitated a furor. It’s difficult to recapture today the sort of outcry that greeted the identity of the murderer. In 1926, the detective story was the national electronic game. Arguments raged, friends fell out, and by all reports, the air was rent with cries of “foul,” “unfair,” and “cheat.” The newspaper columns vied with each other to cover the book without revealing that ending. As far-fetched as it sounds, Christie was confirmed as a puller of fast ones to the British nation. In the great debate over the “fairness” or otherwise of Ackroyd, Dorothy L. Sayers, Christie’s brilliant contemporary put it best, “It is the reader’s business to suspect everybody.”

Seven months after the publication of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, with the book a phenomenal success, Agatha Christie disappeared. At first everything seemed to point to murder, and not surprisingly the police focused their attention on her husband, Colonel Christie. After ten days she was found by an enterprising reporter at a Harrogate Hotel, where she had been staying throughout the time of the uproar. She had registered in the name of the woman with whom Colonel Christie had been having an affair. When challenged by the press, she claimed to be suffering from amnesia. She never spoke of the incident again and it is conspicuously absent from her autobiography.

As A Talent for Murder opens, Agatha Christie is waiting to board a train. She is preoccupied with the devastating knowledge that her husband is having an affair. Suddenly, she feels a tap on her back, causing her to lose her balance, and then the sensation of someone pulling her to safety from the rush of an oncoming train. By the time she can collect herself, something about the man who has rescued her completely unnerves her. But, as she makes a move to get away from him, he leans towards her:

“Now listen to me very carefully,” he said in a whisper. “I think I have something to say to you that you will very much want to hear… I wouldn’t scream if I were you. Unless you want the whole world to learn about your husband and his mistress.”

He guides her to a café, introduces himself as Patrick Kurs, a doctor from Ricksmansworth, and over tea, which she can barely stomach, reveals that he knows a great deal about her. She assumes that he wants money but he turns out to have something much more sinister in mind. And he makes it clear that her family is in grave danger if she doesn’t comply:

“What I propose is something far more than mere financial gain. I have, I suppose one could describe it, a certain scheme for you. You may think it is unconventional, but it is something that I am sure you will find of interest…. It’s a plan that you alone can execute. You, Mrs. Christie, are going to commit a murder. But before then, you are going to disappear.”

It’s the classic starting point for an Agatha Christie novel with, of course, the extra dimension that she is going to be the murderer. How she outwits Kurs is but one part of Wilson’s very clever puzzle. A central element is Christie’s superior knowledge of poisons. There are more than a few surprises and a double whammy at the end that makes us believe Christie might have been a spy a la Le Carré. What fun to reread all of her novels with that in mind.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.