Tag Archives: Commissaire Adamsberg

A Climate of Fear: Fred Vargas

“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.

a climate of fear

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

Review copy

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The Ghost Riders of Ordebec by Fred Vargas

“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.

The Ghost RidersWhile 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 marshalscommander 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

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The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas

I’d intended to read Fred Vargas ever since Emma first mentioned this French crime writer, so when she announced that The Chalk Circle Man was one of my Virtual Gift Exchange books, I had no more excuses. Well here it is, almost 6 months later, and I finally read the book–the first of a series featuring Commissaire Adamsberg.

The book begins with Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg freshly transferred as the new commissaire to the 5th Arrondissement in Paris. Adamsberg is originally from the Pyrenees and there’s the general impression from those he works with that he’s more than a bit strange and “primitive,”  but in reality it’s truer to say that he’s not exactly the most socially competent person on the planet. He certainly hasn’t been promoted due to any glibness or ability to swing office politics in his favour. No, he’s been promoted thanks to a wonderful reputation gained through the solution of four murders.

The Chalk Circle ManIn some ways, The Chalk Circle Man doesn’t feel as though it’s the first book in a series. There’s a definite sensation that we’ve slipped into a certain time slot of Adamsberg’s life. He’s 45,  in love with Camille, a free-spirited woman who has disappeared by choice, and even though Adamsberg had casual affairs, Camille is always in the back of his mind. The book begins with Adamsberg solving the murder of a textile merchant in his own inimitable fashion. It’s the conclusion to this case that begins to build respect for Adamsberg from his skeptical colleagues.

Adamsberg’s next case involves the appearance of blue chalk circles drawn in the wee hours in various sections of Paris. Items, seemingly random items, are placed within these circles, and while it’s the general consensus that the circles, accompanied by a cryptic message, are the work of some harmless nutcase, Adamsberg is clearly disturbed by them, and he fears the worse. With the discovery of a body inside one of the blue circles, Adamsberg’s predictions are realized. Adamsberg has a serial killer on his hands.

Series books rely on a main character strong enough and interesting enough to pull in a repeat audience. I’ve always seen the appeal of a series character–after all, if you, the writer create a really interesting character–a police inspector let’s say or a PI, why drop them once the last page is turned? The most successful series balance the crime solving with the main character’s personal life, so we readers buy the next book–not because we want to read about the next crime, necessarily, but because we want to hang out with the main character again. And again. Adamsberg is a very appealing character, and his unique approach to crime struck a chord for this reader. There’s a scene early on between Adamsberg and Inspector Danglard (who incidentally is the perfect foil for Adamsberg) in which the two men discuss the subject of murder, and Adamsberg brings up a story from his past, concerning a dog, and he tells this story to illustrate some fundamental beliefs:

“The point of this story, Danglard, is the evidence of cruelty in that little kid. I’d known for a long time before this happened that there was something wrong with him, and that was what it was: cruelty. But I can assure you that his face was quite normal, he didn’t have wicked features at all. On the contrary, he was a nice-looking boy, but he oozed cruelty. Just don’t ask me any more, I can’t tell you any more. But eight years later, he pushed a grandfather clock over on top of an old woman and killed her. And most premeditated murders require the murderer not only to feel exasperation or humiliation, or to have some neurosis, or whatever, but also cruelty, pleasure in inflicting suffering, pleasure in the victim’s agony and pleas for mercy, pleasure in tearing the victim apart. It’s true, it doesn’t always appear obvious in a person, but you feel at least that there’s something wrong, that something else is gathering underneath, a kind of growth. And sometimes that turns out to be cruelty–do you see what I’m saying? A kind of growth.”

“That’s against my principles,” said Danglard, a bit stiffly. “I don’t claim my principles are the only ones, but I don’t believe there are people marked out for this or that, like cows with tags on their ears, or that you can pick out murderers by intuition. I know, I’m saying something boring and unexciting, but what we do is we proceed by following clues, and we arrest when we’ve got proof. Gut feelings about ‘growths’ scare me stiff. That way you start off following hunches, and end up with arbitrary sentences and miscarriages of justice.”

Both men have stories to illustrate their theories about crime and murderers, and these stories, which involved early cases in their respective careers, shaped their thinking. Adamsberg has a level of intuition about crime, so for example, he immediately intuits that there’s something sinister about the blue chalk circles while everyone else think they’re just the work of some harmless nut. Adamsberg, however, does not rely on intuition alone. There were several times in the novel when one small detail doesn’t quite fit with the established narrative of crime, and even though other people are satisfied with the solution, Adamsberg is not.

The crimes in The Chalk Circle Man are conducted by a somewhat implausibly adaptable and clever killer, and the best parts of the novel are the refreshingly bizarre characters connected to the story.  Adamsberg has his own unique approach to solving crimes (which involves a great deal of solitary rumination and scribbling), and his sidekick, the melancholy Danglard, who doesn’t quite know what to think of his new boss, is a single parent swamped with children–including one dumped on him by his ex and her lover. There’s also unpredictable oceanographer Mathilde Forestier who has temporarily given up watching fish to watch humans, including the Chalk Circle Man. She believes in salvaging lost souls–not by charity or pity, but with her warm personality and  generous nature. She has already salvaged seventy year-old Clémence, a creepy spinster who obsesses over the personal ads, now employed to do a little work for Mathilde. Mathilde meets a blind man, Charles Reyer, seemingly by accident, who’s struggling with bitterness at his condition, and she rents a room to him while refusing to allow him to wallow in self-pity.  All these characters are somehow or another connected to the case, and the characters are so much fun, that they lighten the darkness of the crimes.

Lucky for me, there are 8 Commissaire Adamsberg novels in English from Vargas (including one graphic novel & the eighth in the series to appear this year). I have some catching up to do. So many thanks to Emma for choosing The Chalk Circle Man.

Translated by Siân Reynolds.

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