Guest Squee: The Works of Fred Vargas

Squee

An Uncertain Place

by Fred Vargas
October 25, 2011 · Penguin Books
Mystery/Thriller

NB: We have a guest squee or rather an author squee for Fred Vargas’ mystery novels. It’s made a couple of us at SBTB HQ add the books to our TBR piles.

This squee comes from Lara. Here is Lara’s bio: “A burlesque-dancing feminist with a deep yearning for solitude and a library of my own. I also teach English to high school students and knit when the stress levels rise.”

Heartbreak requires a very particular kind of book. In my case, I needed a book that was compelling enough that I forgot I was living in a metaphorical ditch and hopeful enough for me to believe that just maybe life does work out. Fred Vargas provided me (and her millions of readers) with those exact books. But she has taken it a step further: her books have reminded me that it is human connection in all its forms that sustains us, not romantic relationships.

It was on the very day that Donald Trump became President-Elect, that I was dumped. This was the relationship that I wanted to last for the remainder of my years. Reader, I was devastated. None of my usual comfort reading (historical romances and crime) was providing even a modicum of comfort. During a library amble, I found Fred Vargas’ An Uncertain Place. It had a suitably eerie cover, a slightly different size page to what I was used to and a list of awards to its name. I would only work out later that this book is quite near the end of the series featuring Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg and is probably not the best place to start, but nevertheless it was the only book at the time that could hold my attention and remove me from my temporary metaphorical ditch.

I give you this backstory, not to rehash the misery of being dumped, but rather to emphasise just how captivating this series is. Despite heartbreak (which included a trip to the hospital for suspected ‘pulmonary embolism’ according to the ER doctor) and the sheer weight of misery, this book held me close. I could not look away. These novels are not romance novels, but, my God, are they Romantic. There is a spark, an originality to the characters, setting and writing that set these novels apart from all other contenders.

First, the author. Fred Vargas herself is French and these books are translated from French into 32 languages, one of which is English, thankfully. The books are set in Paris and there are two series which intersect with each other in a most pleasing way. There is the Adamsberg series. This series focuses on Commissaire Adamsberg, a big deal in the police department who does not adhere to a single social norm. Each book tells the story of a particular crime. This major plot line is resolved before the end of the book, but there are larger plot lines which weave in and out of all of the books.

The Three Evangelists
A | BN | K | iB

Then there is The Three Evangelists series. This series focuses on a group of unusual housemates. These novels each focus on solving a particular mystery or crime, but again, there are plot lines that weave in and out of the books. The two series do also interact in terms of plot and characters. I would recommend reading both series simultaneously and just reading all of them in the order they were published in French. (For reasons I don’t fully understand, the books were not published in chronological order in English.)

Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is a police detective, and a relatively successful one despite what his detractors might think. He is scruffy in appearance and rather short. He is not presented as a romantic lead and yet that it is precisely what he is, for the characters and myself all fall in love with him in our own ways. Be it through Danglard’s devotion or Retancourt’s protectiveness, or my obsessive reading, we are all drawn to this man who holds himself distant, but never consciously so. He is just living his life. He walks for hours and doodles constantly. He battles to remember names. He hates reading and doesn’t consider himself above his team.

At this point, I need to make it very clear that while some of these characteristics might sound familiar, NONE of the usual detective tropes are evident in these novels. Not a single one. These are characters I met for the first time, and ones which in no way served as echoes of other characters from other novels, or indeed my own life. Adamsberg is a singularity both within his setting and the larger world of literary detectives.

As the books progress a team is built up around Adamsberg. Chief amongst them is second-in-command, Danglard. There is a clear love between these two men that never becomes twee. They’ve evolved to work as a unit, but not always harmoniously so. Adamsberg sees how he irritates Danglard, but Danglard remains devoted. Adamsberg will call Danglard first, always. Danglard himself is pear-shaped, and a single father of five children. He hides white wine in the cellar of the police station and (during the earlier books) would often be drunk before 3pm.

Added to these two are a team of people unlike any you’ve met. Normal rules are chucked out the window and it works. These two series of books serve as eloquent arguments for just allowing people to be instead of forcing them to follow social strictures. Parts of the story are farcical and difficult to believe, but you do anyway. There is a hint of magical realism to the books, but only ever a hint, it never takes centre stage.

This Night’s Foul Work
A | BN | K | iB

Importantly, there is also a spectacular office cat. Below are a few extracts about The Snowball from This Night’s Foul Work. For context, Retancourt is an Amazon of a woman and each of the team are in awe of her; she is infallible and all-powerful in the eyes of all those around her.

The team took it in turns to look after the big, soft, furry creature, scared of its own shadow, which needed to be accompanied when it went anywhere, whether to eat, drink or relieve itself. But it had its favourites. Retancourt was the leader by far in this respect. The Snowball spent most of its days close to her desk, snoozing on the warm lid of one of the photocopy machines. The machine in question could not be used without giving the cat a fatal shock.

Danglard considered himself lucky when the creature deigned to walk the twenty metres to its feeding bowl. One time in three, it would give up and roll on its back, obliging someone to take it to the food or to its litter tray in the drinks room.

[they are in the very middle of a murder case when this conversation takes place]

“Get back here quickly, lieutenant, the cat’s pining for you.”

“That’s because I went without saying goodbye. Put him on the line.”

Adamsberg knelt down and put the mobile close to the cat’s ear. Lying on its back, the cat listened while Retancourt explained that she was on her way back home.

Are you in love, yet? Well, are you?! Because heavens to Betsy, I definitely am.

The Three Evangelists series tells the story of three historians and an old detective who all share a ramshackle house. Mathias is a prehistory specialist, Mark studies the middle ages, and Lucien focuses on World War One. Mark’s uncle – a detective who was fired for allowing a murderer to escape – completes the quartet. These characters are revealed delicious clue by delicious clue and the discoveries are heart-filling. I will say, however, that if you don’t fall in love with Mathias, then you might have a heart of stone. The four men build a bond as deep as that between Danglard and Adamsberg and it is a beautiful thing to witness.

Read these books; they will separate you from the noise of life. Vargas’ books are an ode to the outcast and how those outcasts build bonds and support each other. Vargas’ subtlety means that this realisation will grow steadily in your heart and you’ll only realise the depths of love between characters when you’re seven books in and it is 2am and you’re crying because Adamsberg called Danglard first.

Regardless of the question, human connection is the answer. These books prove it.

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