Saturday, July 13, 2013

Fred Vargas

The Ghost Riders of Ordebec.  Fred Vargas.  2013.  Pp360. $36.99

Ken Strongman

To be clear from the start, Fred Vargas is a French woman, an historian by background.  “The Ghost riders of Ordebec” is the latest in her thinking person’s crime series involving Commissaire (equivalent to Superintendent) Adamsberg and his unlikely, quirkily talented crew of Parisian detectives.  Vargas’s novels are completely absorbing, this being the most compelling so far.

Adamsberg is drawn into three cases at once – at least he considers them to be cases, although his superiors might disagree.  A pigeon is found outside the cop shop, forlorn and malnourished, its feet having been tied together.  A wealthy industrialist is found burned to death in his car, a local tearaway being seen as the perpetrator – he has torched cars previously.  And Adamsberg is visited by a demure woman from Ordebec in the Normandy countryside, with a story that the ghost riders have been seen again in the woods by her daughter and have begun to seize and kill the locals.

The various plots thicken and interweave, more deaths occurring with complexities twisting their way onto every page.  But the plots, although very well contrived, are not what makes Vargas’s books unique in crime fiction.  Rather, it is character and atmosphere.

Adamsberg is so vague that his unfocused thinking barely reaches the level of intuition.  He is small, shabbily dressed and drifts through his life and work, but remains highly respected by his team.  Each of his detectives is flawed – lazy, unintelligent, rigid, having a sleep or a drinking disorder and so on.  But between them they have the skills to be effective.

Adamsberg is not unlike Mr Spock in Startrek.  He seems almost emotionless and so, therefore, do “The Ghost Riders” and Vargas’s other books.  The description of events is detailed, engulfing one into this somewhat odd world.  Although some of the events are extreme, they seem to occur in an almost passionless atmosphere.  People have feelings but they are described in a remote and somehow detached way.  And if the detectives are quirky, then those who live in the Normandy countryside demonstrate what quirkiness really is. The atmosphere that all this engenders is a delightful concoction of a good-humoured, tongue-in-cheek irony.

One cannot help becoming caught up in Adamsberg’s unusual world as he drifts from the pigeon to the torched car to the ghost riders and from Paris to Normandy.  All the while he is getting to know his son of 28 of whose existence he has only just become aware – perhaps the extreme of drifting through life. The son is curiously like the father.

Fred Vargas is a subtle writer who makes her characters fascinatingly believable.  Adamsberg is a wonderful creation but whether he would be tolerated in a real gendarmerie is another matter.

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