“You don’t just go killing people left and right, for want of anything better to do.”
In A Climate of Fear from Fred Vargas, Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg returns to investigate a series of connected murders. Adamsberg is dragged into the death of an older, terminally ill woman who appears to be a suicide. It seems to be an open and shut case, but there are some niggling problems that gnaw at the edges of Adamsberg’s mind: Why was the woman so determined to post a letter shortly before her death? Who was the letter to and what did it contain? Finally what is the relevance of a sign drawn at the scene of the woman’s death? Then a helpful citizen steps forward with information about the letter, and Adamsberg goes to talk to the recipient only to find a second ‘suicide’ and the same sign left next to the dead man.
At the scene of the second ‘suicide,’ Adamsberg is told a strange, chilling story about a trip made to Iceland more than ten years earlier. The trip went horribly wrong and ended up like some frozen version of Lord of the Flies. The two ‘suicides’ were both people on the trip, and it seems that those former tourists are being bumped off one by one.
While attempting to puzzle through the Iceland Tourists murders in his own inimitable way, Adamsberg begins investigating a second series of murders occurring within the secretive “Association for the Study of the Writings of Maximilien Robespierre.” It turns out that Danglard, a walking encyclopedia, who “knows things that you won’t learn in thirty lifetimes,” is very familiar with the writings and speeches of Robespierre, and Danglard looks like a natural dressed in an elegant 18th century purple frock coat.
With two parallel investigations, Adamsberg’s team is stretched to the limit, and when the investigations stall, Adamsberg comes under criticism from some squad members–including the ever-faithful Danglard. Vargas shows most effectively that thought processes, which are unique to each individual (especially Adamsberg who tends to approach crime in an intuitive way,) isolate and in this case, frustrates many of Adamsberg’s fellow officers.
At 415 pages this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a tightly plotted crime novel, but I loved every page. For example, there’s a long section with Adamsberg and Danglard interviewing the woman who picked by a letter dropped by the first victim. This woman, Marie-France, has a dreamy, yet very specific thought process which Adamsberg relates to:
‘After that I thought it over, seven times, not any more.’
‘Seven times,’ Adamsberg murmured,
How could you count the number of times you thought something over?
‘Not five and not twenty. My father always said you should think something over seven times in your head, before you act, not less, because you might do something silly, but especially not more, or you’d go around and around in circles. And end up corkscrewed into the ground. Then you’re stuck. So I thought: this lady went out on her own to post this letter. So it must have been important, don’t you think?’
Vargas takes her time developing the crimes, the solutions and the dynamics of each crime milieu–in particular the Robespierre society. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: crime fiction, for its focus on the transgressive, is a great way to infiltrate a foreign culture, and in A Climate of Fear, we are cast back into the French Revolution. I had no idea that Robespierre was such a controversial figure, and Vargas explores the nuances of Robespierre’s character and why some people worship him and why others find him an object of hate. The psychology of historical reenactments as “an arena for people’s fantasies” is explored very well, and there are plenty of details about Robespierre, his downfall and death in this rich crime novel.
A Climate of Fear is the eighth in the Commissaire Adamsberg series (if you don’t count the graphic novel). It’s possible to jump in with this one if you feel so inclined as there’s not a great deal of information about Adamsberg’s personal life, and the relationships he has with his squad members is fairly self-explanatory. A couple of mentions are made of the past, and there are returning characters, but there’s not much that should interfere with enjoying this crime novel on its own.
Thanks to Emma for turning me onto Vargas in the first place
Translated by Siân Reynolds