Tuesday, October 04, 2005

"Fred Vargas"

Fred Vargas is the psuedonym of a French scientist, a woman, who's been turning out interesting romans policier for several years. The novels, Have Mercy on Us all (published first in English, but actually the second novel of the series) and Seeking Whom He May Devour (the first novel in the series), both have titles in English that are considerably different than the French originals--the original titles would have taken some explanation in English, but I for one dislike the practice of changing the titles in translations. Vargas's work might be characterized as a "grand-guignol" noir. Her characters are depicted in terms of a bundle of characteristic traits and tics of speech that are repeated over and over. The effect is archaic, reminiscent of the novels and plays of earlier centuries. That effect is of a piece with her novelistic strategy as a whole--the first novel deals with lycanthropy and the rural French werewolf legends in particular; The second deals with the bubonic plague (and in particular the talismans used to ward off the disease) as well as the revival of the trade of the town crier. These themes are folded into a more-or-less conventional police procedural (less conventional in the werewolf novel than the plague novel), but even that is twisted into a pre-modern (or perhaps post-modern is the proper term) mode by the character of Commissaire Principal Adamsberg, her detective. Adamsberg is absent-minded, illogical, impulsive, and intuitive--constantly grasping mentally for an idea or a person that is just out of his conscious reach. The effect of the almost Dickensian characterizations, the folklore motifs, and the police drama is comic, but nonetheless dark and seductive, practically a modern Gothic version of noir. The combination of the Gothic and the comic is, of course, what led me to think of the series as grand guignol--and the novels follow that model in their aggression, pacing, and impact. A third English translation from the series is promised for January 06.

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