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Mayhem in Margaux  by  Jean-Pierre Alaux, Noël Balen AND Sally Pane (translator)By Janet Ashby

MAYHEM IN MARGAUX, on sale this month, is the sixth in the Wine Detective series by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noel Balen. In this cozy series, wine expert Benjamin Cooker and his assistant Virgile become involved in helping solve wine-related mysteries throughout southern France. In MAYHEM the Bordeaux area is in the midst of a summer heat wave threatening the wine grapes when the brash new manager of a Margaux wine estate suffers a fatal accident. We were able to ask the translator, Sally Pane, about the latest volume and the Wine Detective series.

This is the sixth book, out of twenty-three published in France, to be published in English. It doesn’t seem necessary to read the earlier books to enjoy this one but could you give us some background on the earlier books?

Each book in the series can be read as a stand-alone, but they also each round out our understanding of the characters. In Treachery in Bordeaux, wine consultant Benjamin Cooker hires his assistant Virgile. After that, in Grand Cru Heist, Nightmare in Burgundy, Deadly Tasting, Cognac Conspiracies and MAYHEM IN MARGAUX the characters face different mysteries, and as readers we explore different wine regions.

A special charm of the series is the portrayal of quotidian life outside of Paris—in southwestern France—and the insider look at winemaking. In MAYHEM there are enjoyable digressions on summering at a rental villa in Cap Ferrat, the beautiful stones of the Medoc, and corks versus screw tops as well as a touching scene of Benjamin with his daughter visiting from New York. Do each of the books also touch on some current social issue such as gentrification or illegal immigrants?

The authors say themselves that each book is a special homage to a wine, its winemakers and its region, and with each they explore various aspects of everyday winemaking and its struggles: gentrification eating up vineyards, black market trafficking of grand crus, local superstitions, scars from World War II, foreign buyouts, and illegal immigrants being used to cut costs. At the same time, they remain light mysteries, much more about the detail and experience of that part of France.

The series is written by a duo of experienced authors, one a wine lover and one a music expert. Could you tell us something more about them? Do you know anything about their collaborative process? How involved are they in the translation into English?

The authors write two books a year together, with a lot of time exploring the winemaking region and meeting the actual people who make that wine, and researching the history of the region. Then they work out the plot line together and write separately. Noël Balen then does the final draft to ensure it is consistent with the series.

There is a successful French TV series based on the books. Is “Blood on the Vine” available in the United States?

DVDs are available on Amazon, and they are occasionally aired on cable TV’s MHZ station as part of the International Mystery series.

The publisher, Le French Book, is a relatively new venture, and Penguin is currently publishing new translations of the Inspector Maigret books by Simenon. Do you think there is more receptivity now in the Anglophone world to translated mysteries? Do you have any theories about the boom in translation of Nordic mysteries?

International mysteries and thrillers have been popular for some time. A 2013 survey by Library Journal says “The international crime fiction wave shows no sign of dissipating,” and this seems to be true. Nordic mysteries got a big boost with the success of the Millenium series, but long before that, Simenon’s Inspector Maigret was successful when it was first published and translated as well.

This series seems lighter in tone than earlier French mysteries translated into English. Have you observed any major differences between French and American/British mysteries or was the earlier choice of darker and more psychologically based books to translate a matter of chance?

There are many types of French mysteries published in France, and only very few get translated, so it’s hard to judge from the sampling available in English. This is one thing the publisher Le French Book is working to remedy, by translating cozies, along with spy novels, police procedurals and more, giving a broader view of what is happening in crime fiction in France.

You’ve been translating for more than twenty years. Have you seen any changes over that time period? Has the advent of e-books helped increase the visibility of translated books or, on the other hand, made it more difficult to be noticed among the flood of new titles and decrease in print reviews?

There has been an increase in translation publishing since the advent of e-books, particularly in genres popular in e-book format, such as mysteries. Translations are like any other book, and catching the attention of readers in the flood of new titles is a challenge, for sure. However, the Winemaker Detective mysteries are available in print, e-book and audio versions, and this variety of formats helps attract a larger audience.

You have done scientific, legal, and literary translations. What do you find to be the particular challenges and pleasures of translating popular fiction like this series?

It’s important to keep the flavor or the style consistent with the original French voice, but at the same time, there are cultural allusions (such as historical, literary, and political references) that may be less familiar to an Anglophone reader. At times it’s necessary to elaborate on the text so that these themes retain their relevance and add to the reader’s enjoyment. This is also part of the pleasure of translating these books. Just as I’ve had to learn about wine and winemaking, I’ve come to appreciate the intricacies of the wine world and the distinct personalities of many regions in France. Translating a rhyme or a play on words or hunting down the reference for a quote from Proust is both challenging and rewarding.

What do you personally enjoy the most about the Winemaker Detective series?

With each new mystery, the characters of Benjamin Cooker and Virgile become more familiar, and I feel as if I’m right there with them, exploring a new puzzle. I find myself drawn to every unique area, and wish I could taste all the dishes and visit the markets and historical landmarks that make an appearance in each book. Translating the Winemaker Detective series has taught me so much and deepened my appreciation and affection for France.

Thank you very much for your time today.


Sally Pane studied French in Paris at the Sorbonne and the University of Colorado, where she also taught French and Italian. She has been translating for more than twenty years. Mayhem in Margaux is the fifth Wine Maker Detective novel she has translated for Le French Book.