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It's a culinary romp through the French countryside.

Or it's a murder mystery, albeit the murder took place decades ago. Or perhaps a romance story, with a terrorist threat thrown in the mix.

"Grave," of course, is all the above, another in a series centered around Benoit Courreges, the chief of police of the small French town of St. Denis. Bruno, as he's called, is aptly described by the author as "an ex-soldier who hunted and drank and who tried never to arrest anyone and cared little for the subtleties of modern law enforcement with its counseling and political correctness."

Of course, that attitude gets him in trouble with his superiors, putting him in an awkward position with a summit meeting coming to St. Denis and vandalism afoot stemming from opposition to the region's love of fois gras.

Then there's the skeletal remains found in an archeology dig on the outskirts of town.

Walker somehow blends all the seemingly disparate plots into a joyful read full of information about fine French cuisine, police practice in a town where everybody knows your name and insight into Spanish revolutionary history.

Walker has the literary chops to pull it off. He's based in Washington as the senior director of a global think tank for corporation bigwigs. He's also an international columnist for United Press International. But, perhaps most appropriately of all, he spends his time between D.C. and the quiet French countryside about which he writes so well.

That explains his three previous novels, mysteries set in France that combine meals with murder. "Grave," like its predecessors, weaves folklore and mayhem into a palatable dish readers can digest easily. Much like the food that whets the reader's appetite, "Grave" enters the cranium gently until, that is, near the end when pandemonium takes over and reveals the true culprit.

Bruno not only must solve the murder, he must pacify and help protect the summit attendees, all the while trying to protect from French bureaucracy his friends who raise ducks to produce the illegal but much-desired fois gras.

If that's not enough, he must navigate between a current paramour and a former lover, the former happening to be his superior in the protect-the-summit-attendees plot.

Walker fills "Grave" with personality clashes and a pleasant but not overwhelming dash of mystery. Who did the killing? Who was killed? Why was the body found so many years after death? What do these college kids have to do with it? And who will win Bruno's heart, Pamela or Isabelle?

Walker answers them all, all except who wins Bruno's heart.

Perhaps he's saving that for the fifth installment in the life of Chief Bruno of St. Denis but, if he is, he'll have to come up with more exquisite meals.

Lee Coppola is a retired TV and Buffalo News journalist as well as the retired Dean of St. Bonaventure University's Jandoli School of Journalism.

> FICTION

The Crowded Grave

By Martin Walker

Knopf

313 pages, $24.95