Vargas, Fred - 'This Night's Foul Work' (translated by Sian Reynolds)
When Commissaire Adamsberg moves into his new house he is promptly informed by a neighbour that it is haunted by the ghost of the Silent Sister, a homicidal nun slain by a vengeful son. Adamsberg, being Adamsberg, accepts the news with nary a shiver. He has other matters on his mind. Two men have been killed on the outskirts of Paris, their throats cut. The drug squad are trying to wrest the cases from him, but Adamsberg is determined to keep hold of them, adamant that the killings are not about drugs, his only reason being the mysterious soil found under the fingernails of both victims. And, of course, his intuition. On top of this, Adamsberg has to work with a new female pathologist with whom he had a run-in years previously, and with a new recruit to the squad, the mysterious Veyrenc, who has a tendency to speak in impromptu verse (from which the novel's title springs), and who also has a dark link with Adamsberg's own past.
Then, Adamsberg has cause to visit a remote village in nearby Normandy, and hears the news that a stag has been found in local woodland, slain seemingly for no reason, certainly for no hunting trophy, with its heart torn out and left beside the body. It is only when Adamsberg hears about the death of a second stag that he has the flash of inspiration that jolts the puzzling investigation into action.
Of all European crime writers, Fred Vargas is my favourite. Others may be brilliant, but Vargas is utterly unique, and that is the reason I hold her in such esteem. Nobody translated into English writes crime novels the way she does, with the humour, the quirkiness, the complete disregard for rationality (even though things often do turn out in a mostly rational manner). She is unique, and it is that uniqueness that's won her the Duncan Lawrie International Dagger two years running. I wouldn't expect her to win it again for the third year, but I confess I would be surprised if THIS NIGHT'S FOUL WORK doesn't make the short-list again, holding as it does all the qualities of her previous novels.
THIS NIGHT'S FOUL WORK is, I believe, the 6th and most recent Adamsberg novel, yet the fourth in English. Hopefully they will get around to translating some of the earlier ones so readers can get the full arc of Adamsberg's fictional life. I would love to know the full picture about his tricky relationship with beloved Camille, for example. However, it is fortunate that one doesn't need to read the series in order to be drawn into such an appealing, eccentric character. Adamsberg is the fulcrum of this series, and he and the way Vargas writes make an almost perfect match: eclectic, eccentric, a little flippant, sometimes seeming to make no sense whatsoever, wilfully encouraging the impossible as a result of intuition. They both appeal to the part of the brain that wants to embrace the seemingly inexplicable, the things which rationally cannot be, and yet *are*. If there's one thing that sums it all up it's the sheer twisted imagination of it: the everyday supplanted into a bizarre situation (the tree in THE THREE EVANGELISTS, for example). The usual transposed on the unexplainable, normal events made bizarre by little imaginative details.
The novels are so absolutely refreshing. They are light yet entirely serious, full of alcoholic office cats and at the same time as full of instinctive understanding of how human beings work, both in groups and alone (Adamsberg's trip to a village in Normandy, and his encounters with the locals who gradually accept and even embrace him, are among the best scenes in the entire book). There is no other writer like her, and nor, I think, another writer who could pull off the books in the way she does. The writing is witty and full of humour and so very sprightly. The pages fly by in a sheer feast of intelligent entertainment. The protagonist is brilliant, as is his supporting cast. All I can do is to exhort people to read her without further ado. A Fred Vargas experience is one quite unlike any other.
Fiona Walker, England