“Perhaps there’s an ancient cloud around here, some mist, a disturbance, a memory still hanging in the air.”
Earlier this year I read The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas as part of my virtual gift exchange with Emma. This choice has turned into the gift keeps on giving, and by that I mean that The Chalk Circle Man was the first book in the Commissaire Adamsberg series, and I knew that I had to read the rest. Well I sort of cheated, and instead of faithfully plodding through the backlist, I leaped forward to the new release of The Ghost Riders of Ordebec.
While I can tell that I’ve missed events (there are some new characters and references to incidents), I was very easily able to jump right in to the story without feeling disoriented–and that’s in spite of the fact that Adamsberg, who was a lonely bachelor pining for his runaway love in The Chalk Circle Man, now has a grown son in The Ghost Riders of Ordebec. The book begins with a strange case of homicide which Adamsberg solves in his own inimitable way before moving into the main course.
Valentine Vendermot, a mousy little woman from the village of Ordebec in Normandy visits Adamsberg in his office. Clearly terrified, she tells a strange tale of murder yet to take place, and this, of course, puts Adamsberg in the unique position of being able to stop murders before they occur. The woman claims that her daughter, Lina, has seen the legendary Ghost Riders–minions of hell who “seize” evildoers and drag them off for their unpunished crimes. A particularly nasty piece of work, a hunter named Herbier, a man so vicious that he’s even been expelled from the local hunters’ league for his brutality, has gone missing, and apparently Lina saw him in the company of the Ghost Riders along with three other people from village. According to local legend, these four people are all marked for certain death. Madame Vendermot, whose children are already considered freakish, fears not so much for the villagers Lina saw in her vision of the Ghost Riders, but more for the consequences against her family, and there’s a historical precedent to help argue her case. Normally Adamsberg would not get involved in a case so far from Paris, but through a chain of events, he finds himself sent to the village to solve the mystery, juggling the solutions of three crimes: the mystery of the Ghost Riders and the Furious Army (The Wild Hunt), an arson fire which resulted in the death of a wealthy Parisian, and the cruel hobbling of a pigeon condemned to endure a hideously slow death had not Adamsberg intervened.
Now the details of those three crimes should give you a hint about the book: it’s primarily quirky. Adamsberg, who has a nose for cruelty, shuffles the crimes, with one not particularly taking precedence over the other in his mind. And while the solutions to the various crimes, are of course, important, it’s the delightful characters here, and the story which is infused with humour, that makes this such a wonderful read.
Sent to the village of Ordebec, Adamsberg, who is a very sensitive, intuitive character, becomes involved in the lives of some of the locals–people who know each intimately and are aware of the village’s darkest secrets. While the village is picturesque and idyllic, it’s a hotbed of gossip, ancient feuds, and more than one very suspicious death. Adamsberg finds that he admires the character and the independence of very elderly Léone–a woman who may hold a clue to the Ghost Riders “ an army of the dead, of the putrefied dead, an army of ghostly riders, wild-eyed and screaming, unable to get to heaven.” Rather interestingly, atheist Danglard, who is out of sorts with Adamsberg, knows quite a bit about the Ghost Riders.
The case of the Ghost Riders and the missing hunter, Herbier, should by rights, be investigated by Ordebec’s Capitaine Émeri–a vain man who thinks that France’s best days were those of Napoleon. Émeri’s ancestor was Marshal Davout, ”Born on the wrong side of the blanket, one of Napoleon’s marshals … commander of the third corps of the Grande Armée.” Émeri is inordinately proud of this legacy and his inheritance, “two sparkling pieces of silverware” complete with the imperial eagle “and his ancestor’s initials“ take pride of place in his “recreation of an Empire salon.”
Émeri wasn’t stupid. He knew that this homage to his ancestor was a form of compensation for a life which he himself regarded as humdrum, and a character showing none of the Marshal’s famous audacity. Lacking sufficient courage, he had ducked out of a military career like his father’s, opting instead for the gendarmerie nationale, while his conquests were restricted to the opposite sex.
Even though a couple of the deaths are gruesome, they take place off the page with the result that nothing is too serious here. Adamsberg, as usual, is underestimated by his foes and even his faithful sidekick, Danglard can’t fathom Adamsberg’s motivations. Adamsberg, meanwhile, develops a fascination with Lina’s “splendid” breasts with the result that he wonders if they “were blinding him to the possibility of finding fault” with her strange, outcast family. At the same time, Adamsberg discovers a growing relationship with his son, Zerk–a young man who is quite evidently a chip off the old block, for he can fathom his father’s thought processes while others are clueless. Some of the humour comes from the idiosyncratic members of Adamsberg’s crime squad which includes a narcoleptic and an amateur zoologist. Another member of the squad the statuesque, impressively built Violette Retancourt goes undercover–a woman whose talents range from pigeon rehabilitation to domestic spy.
Vargas has a unique, seemingly random way of approaching her subject which is mirrored by Adamsberg’s peculiar and unique approach to crime, and Vargas creates a world–although dark–we’d all like to be part of. Here’s Adamsberg’s neighbor, Lucio, another amateur accomplice on the subject of unsolved crime and unfinished business:
In the end, it was as his old neighbor Lucio was always telling him: Lucio who had lost his arm as a child during the Spanish Civil War. The problem, Lucio would explain, wasn’t so much the missing arm as that when it happened he had had a spider bite on it which he hadn’t finished scratching. And seventy years later, Lucio was still scratching away at empty space. Something that isn’t finished with properly will irritate you forever.
This delightful series is highly recommended for those who like foreign crime which oozes with culture and humour. Translated by Siân Reynolds. Review copy