In the early noughties I reviewed Fred Vargas’s Have Mercy on Us All, in a poor translation. At that point I’d never heard of him, so I went to Joseph Gibert, the biggest second-hand bookshop in Paris, and bought all the previous books that they had second hand. At check-out, the young woman at the till looked up at me and said (I translate): ‘Ah, Fred Vargas. You’ll like this’. Oh, yes, oh, very much yes indeed I did and I do. I might add that at that early stage I tried to put two and clue together and managed to break her pseudonym (no, I won’t explain how I did it, because I’m still hoping that one day a character will turn up in a new book using my technique). In the event, she ditched her first, unsatisfactory, translator and has worked ever since with Siân Reynolds who is the best translator of French into English. As everyone now knows, Fred is a woman who, like Dominique Manotti, chose a unisex nom de plume in order to navigate the misogynist waters of French crime fiction. And they are very, very misogynist. She won what was then the Duncan Lawrie International Dagger; in fact she won it in three of the first four years, and then in 2013 had to share it with Pierre Lemaître. Her first speech of acceptance was as unusual as her books, and circled around the idea of the Club Chair, which allowed her to claim the importance of Golden Age British crime fiction. Certainly, in this latest book, there’s a fine scene in which Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg gathers his team, including a very disapproving number two, the savant Danglard, around a table and explains the solution to the crimes we’ve been confused by for several hundred pages. And everything fits, everything is accounted for, and there are a lot—really a lot—of murders. And yet there is nothing in the book that suggests by the slightest shadow that this is a serial killer novel. It is not. It leans toward the police procedural with the intuitive and imaginative leader, but nothing would convince me that the lively and, indeed, convincing craziness of Adamsberg’s methods and his team (which includes a large, lazy cat) would last one investigation anywhere in France.
The simplest way to approach Fred Vargas, then, is to curl up in a large leather-covered club chair and let her spin her story-teller’s web. The reason for the curling is up is that she has the strangest imagination I’ve ever come across in crime fiction: this book has a wild boar that protects a elderly woman who lives alone in a clearing in a wood. So, there’s a murder, in Paris, which isn’t on Adamsberg’s patch, but a colleague calls him for assistance. Then, of course, there are some more, linked by a strange symbol, which soon reveals itself to be a guillotine. In the course of the investigation, Adamsberg finds himself at an association of enthusiasts for the Terror, that terrible period of the French Revolution when thousands of people were beheaded outside the rule of law, and the great mover and shaker in this insistence on death was Robespierre, the incorruptible who eventually shared their fate. So, a murder, another murder, a society of some 700 members, one of who may be the killer, and then there’s the Vargas twist, Iceland. Why? Because some of the murder victims seem to have gone on a tourist visit to one of the smallest islands off the northern coast, where things went very bad, and two of them died. Not until close to the end does Adamsberg find what makes sense of all these different threads—including insurrection from his team.
At this point in the rhythm of translation, it has become possible to read Vargas in chronological order and, indeed, a very early investigation will soon be available in English as The Accordionist (Debout les Morts) which was adapted for television. Additionally, a new novel is published next month.
Fred Vargas, A Climate of Fear