Tuesday, May 17, 2011

AN UNCERTAIN PLACE: FRED VARGAS



"You get some weird goings-on in France too, don't you?" remarked Detective Chief Inspector Radstock, in English, to his Parisian colleagues.

The chief of the Serious Crimes Squad in Paris Commissaire Adamsberg, his walking encyclopedia colleague Commandant Danglard, and young Estalere are in London for a jolly/seminar. On an evening stroll with DCI Radstock they are called to Highgate Cemetery to examine shoes left outside the gates. The problem being the shoes have severed feet left inside them.
On their journey back to Paris Danglard tells them the story of Highgate Cemetery, Lizzie Siddal, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his friend Bram Stoker, creator of Count Dracula.

Once home the squad are called to a horrific crime scene in the leafy suburb of Darche, where Pierre Vaudel, a reclusive semi-retired legal-journalist, has been obliterated, his body crushed to pieces.

A disaggregated body, which did not even arouse disgust, in the sense that it was impossible to associate these elements with anything resembling a human being.

Vaudel had disinherited his son and left his fortune to his gardener, a man with a history of violence.
Adamsberg's investigation will lead him to a Serbian village, and into great danger from both the mysterious perpetrator, and from those in power who don't want the case to be solved.

Fred Vargas, and her translator Sian Reynolds, have blended humour, folklore, horror, witty dialogue, bizarre plot, and eccentric characters and the end result is a brilliant reading experience. An Uncertain Place is designed to be read slowly because you won't want it to end; the literary equivalent of slow cooking, or sipping a fine whisky or wine. A tasty French bouillabaisse of a novel to be enjoyed and savoured by gourmets of crime fiction.
The crime squad characters are uniquely quirky creations, the forgetful scruffy Adamsberg, the alcoholic walking encyclopedia Danglard, the goddess like Retancourt, and Froissy, who has a panic attack when she misses a meal. You don't have to like the strange Adamsberg to enjoy this series, because although the Commissaire is central to the stories his team, and the supporting cast, are so eccentric there is always something to amuse the reader.

'I'm not going to ask you about women. I can see. Lack of confidence.'
'In them?'
'No, in yourself.'

Fred Vargas has explored the murder mystery turned it into a horror story, and then turned it back again into the quirkiest of crime stories. There are so many wonderful passages including one in which a colleague explains to Adamsberg why he alone among police officers cannot be bought by the "great snake", but I will resist the temptation to quote this one.
But one more gem from Adamsberg's time in the Serbian village:

'Show photos? Bad idea. Very bad. Hereabouts they don't like people who ask questions, cops journalists, nosy parkers. You'll have to think of something else. But they don't like historians either, or film-makers or sociologists, anthropologists, photographers, nutters or ethnologists.'

'That's a lot of people they don't like. Why don't they like nosy parkers? Because of the war?'

Fred Vargas is the pen name of Frederique Audoin-Rouzeau, a medieval historian and archaeologist, who has along with translator Sian Reynolds won the CWA International Dagger three times.
An Uncertain Place would in my opinion be a very worthy winner of a fourth award, but this year Fred Vargas, and her French eccentricity, may face challenges from Scandinavia and further afield.
We shall have a better idea when the CWA International Dagger shortlist is announced on Friday evening at Crime Fest.

The rest of the Commissaire Adamsberg series [English publication date in brackets]:

1996 The Chalk Circle Man*** and here [2009]
1999 Seeking Whom He May Devour [2004]
2001 Have Mercy on Us All [2003]

Fred Vargas and Sian Reynolds have also won the International Dagger with The Three Evangelists*.

5 Comments:

OpenID jiescribano said...

A jolly good review, Norman. Love your expression "gourmets of crime fiction. " Fully agree, this is a book to be savoured slowly.

5:39 AM  
Blogger Margot Kinberg said...

Norman - Thanks for this excellent review. Vargas is such a talented writer, and I'm not surprised you liked this as much as you did. We shall, indeed, see what happens on Friday night...

6:27 AM  
Blogger Glenn Harper said...

Norman: Your excellent review suggests the reason that I found the movie version of An Uncertain Place (made for French TV) a little unsatisfying. It could hardly give a viewer a sense of a reader's pleasure in Vargas's language, characterization, and myth-laden plotting.

1:55 PM  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I love Fred Vargas' books. She has so much creativity and imagination. No one -- and I mean no one -- can match her wild plots. And I mean this in the best way.

I will venture anywhere with Adamsberg and Danglard, provided they are in the hands of their brilliant creator.

I will have to purchase this book ASAP so that I can enjoy reading this while taking vacation reading days in air-conditioning, armed with iced tea. What a great reading vacation that will be.

I can't wait. And I am so glad to read these fantastic reviews; that makes the anticipation so much better.

11:38 PM  
Blogger Maxine said...

Norman, I'm saving up this review as I haven't read the book yet (but was given a copy by a kind source so will hope to do so soon). Look forward to reading it afterwards. (your review, that is)

12:41 AM  

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