Friday, April 20, 2007

Fred Vargas's Adamsberg

The style of French author Fred Vargas is similar to the investigative style of her detective (Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg): intuitive rather than logical. Looked at from a logical perspective, some of the plot elements in the new Vargas translation don't make much sense. But readers who appreciate Vargas's work will be swept along in spite of the illogicalities, since what makes the books distinctive and enjoyable is Vargas's language and her characters (which can verge into caricatures that are used for both comic effect and plot advancement). Wash This Blood Clean from My Hand is the book's title (originally titled Sous les vents de Neptune--and one my ongoing peeves with the publishers of crime novels in translation is their persistent habit of giving the books titles that don't relate to the original titles; the practice can, as in Vargas's case, make it difficult to track down exactly which books have been translated, and in what order they were originally published). Vargas, as is well known now, is the pseudonym of archaeologist Frédérique Audouin-Rouzeau, whose twin sister is a painter who uses the name Jo Vargas. The new book has a plot as gothic as the two previously translated Adamsberg books (which dealt with werewolves and the plague, among other things): the detective is struck by fits: he is either having a breakdown or being possessed. What has set him off is a series of reminders of a killer from his past whose murder weapon is a trident (and who died 16 years previously). Adamsberg has a family connection to the killer, who skilfully frames others for his murders: one of those framed was the detective's brother, when both were young. The family connection and the fact that the serial killer is dead complicate Adamsberg's conviction that the same man has killed again, and the killer is now pursuing the detective, in France and in Canada (where Adamsberg's team has gone on a forensic training course). Vargas always richly laces her narratives with incidental characters that are Dickensian in their characterization and their function, and this book is no exception. What is most inviting about these books is the rich texture created by these characters and by the detective's non-linear mind. Neither noir nor cozy, the Adamsberg books inhabit a sort of alternative universe (such as the world evoked in Jack O'Connell's excellent and very different novels), a world with its own internal consistencies that are not bound by simple logic or reason. To enjoy them, the reader will need to abandon him/herself to the rules of that world, and once that is accomplished, the rewards of this atmospheric and frequently funny series can be appreciated.


Anonymous said...

Interesting review and commentary, as ever, Glenn. I have only read one book by Vargas so far, The Three Evangelists, but am intending to read this series sometime, so have bookmarked your review in anticipation.

Anonymous said...

Great review. I'll add another pet peeve re:titles - different US/UK titles - Sun Storm by Asa Larsson has been printed in the UK as Savage Altar.