#32 / Fred Vargas, An Uncertain Place

Fred Vargas, An Uncertain Place, translated from the French by Sian Reynolds (London: Vintage, 2012 [2008]). A rather gruesome outing for Commissaire Adamsberg and his team  3.5 stars

Opening line: Commissaire Adamsberg knew how to iron shirts.

Fred Vargas is one of my favourite crime writers, but I always regard her novels as something of a guilty pleasure. By rights, I shouldn’t really like them, as I tend to favour crime novels that engage with history, politics or society (such as Dominique Manotti’s Affairs of State), and which feature grounded, rational policemen (I’m a sensible type at heart). Not novels involving a hunt for a werewolf (Seeking Whom He May Devour), or a Commissaire who wanders aimlessly around Paris using intuition to solve his crimes.

And yet the Adamsberg novels have afforded me more reading pleasure than almost any other crime series I’ve read. This has a great deal to do with the quality of the writing – there’s a reason why Vargas has won the CWA International Dagger three times – and the way in which she uses her medieval historian’s knowledge to take the roman policier in a pleasingly original direction. Add in a large dash of quirky gallic – her police team are eccentrically and extravagently ‘French’ – et voilà, you have a classy, distinctive crime series on your hands that’s mighty hard to resist.

Those who’ve loved previous Adamsberg novels are not likely to be disappointed by An Uncertain Place, as all the usual ingredients are present and correct. For British readers and Anglophiles, there’s also the bonus of an initial stop in London, which includes a splendidly gothic discovery at the entrance of Highgate Cemetery.

So why have I given An Uncertain Place only 3.5 stars?

For me, this crime novel went slightly too far in two respects:

1. It features a truly gruesome murder and crime-scene description. An explanation of the murderer’s rationale and methods are supplied further on in the narrative, but I still found the enormous amount of detail too much to stomach (not helped by the fact that I read the worst bit over lunch).

2. Vargas is usually very skilled at suggesting that other-worldly forces are at work while maintaining a plausible crime narrative in a ‘realistic’ French setting. As in previous novels, the tension between those in the police team who work intuitively and those who rely on logic is thematised (Adamsberg and his disciples are the ‘cloud shovellers’, while Retancourt leads the ‘rational positivist movement’). But Vargas jumps in a clear direction at the end of the narrative, and it was one that left me rather cross. So – with a little sigh – 3.5 it is.

An Uncertain Place was my January read for the 2013 Translation Challenge.

Mrs. Peabody awards An Uncertain Place an enjoyable but slightly infuriating 3.5 stars.

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31 thoughts on “#32 / Fred Vargas, An Uncertain Place

  1. Mrs. P – Thanks for this honest and thoughtful review. Like you I’m one of those people who ‘shouldn’t’ like Vargas but who nonetheless do. I’m sorry to hear you didn’t like this better than you did, but I do understand what you mean.

    • Thanks, Margot. In spite of the negatives, I did still enjoy it very much, just not quite as much as previous ones in the series. And I’ll snap up the next one without hesitation too – a Vargas will always be one of the best treats…

  2. Ooh I quite like a bit of gore over my lunchbreak- helps aid my digestion! I appreciate the honesty of this review but will be interested to seek this one out as you’ve tickled my interest!

  3. Interesting review – I have only read one Vargas – something about an opera singer and a tree??? Did not really do it for me, but it was a long time ago, so maybe it’s time to have another go..

  4. Well I absolutely know what you mean about Mme Vargas – she’s a bit like a really rich cake that you eat when you’re not tremendously hungry. You like eating it although you know you don’t really want it and you can’t eat too many of them at once because you’ll feel sick. I often wonder whether the sign of a good writer is whether I can reread them and I’ve really struggled to reread Fred, even though I utterly love and adore Paris. She reminds me a bit of the Belleville novels of Daniel Pennac, which seem to take place in a kind of parallel Paris, mostly realistic but somehow not quite credible.

    • Hmmm – that’s an interesting point – I’ve not tried to re-read any as yet. ‘Mostly realistic but somehow not quite credible’: yes, there’s an element of the fantastical and quirky there that requires a kind of suspension of disbelief. Most of the time I’m quite happy to go along with this, but found myself refusing at the end of this novel, like a horse at a fence. I think Vargas plays with us a little as readers (how far can she push the fantastical, how much will we willingly accept) – but she didn’t get the balance quite right this time…for me at least…

  5. Oh, I love Vargas – although I haven’t read this one yet. And i don’t even pretend to feel guilty about it – although I too like my dose of realism and social critique. I struggle to explain what it is I like about them so much: when I tell people they are about the plague or werewolves or an immortal serial killer, they must think I am crazy. But she is good at pulling you back from that brink of believability, they are so refreshingly different, and each book has a truly unforgettable scene or atmosphere.

    • Thanks, MarinaSofia. I would still describe myself as a big fan, and agree with you – it’s hard to pin down what it is that makes them so enjoyable. What drew me to the series was that refreshing difference + the quality of the writing – and Vargas should continue to get credit for those two things. She is in a category and class of her own in many ways.

  6. I love Fred Vargas’ books and without any guilt whatever. She is one of the most creative writers out there, and I love her quirkiness. I’m willing to go wherever she goes. Does anyone write plots like she does? Would anyone learn tidbits about the bubonic plague from any other writer? Or have a police officer who speaks in 12-syllable Alexandrine verse? Or have a tree being replanted as evidence of a murder suspect? One could go on and on.

    The book where Adamsberg goes looking for a werewolf actually is based in science, that of psychology. He uses that science to unravel and understand a deranged culprit, who has a unique pathology and it’s manifest in quite a strange way. I think Vargas is a bit tongue-in-cheek when she says “werewolf,” because the book has a material, rather than supernatural-based resolution.

    Same, too, with An Uncertain Place. While I agree about the gory beginning, and I would have been fine without it, although the plot goes off into vampire history and takes Adamsberg out of France to Eastern Europe, the resolution was still based on deduction and rational thinking. It was not based on the supernatural or paranormal. Adamsberg tried to understand the history of the region and of particular families and their lore, so that he could solve the crimes. And he did.

    Vargas isn’t saying that the motives for murder are rational. She’s saying that readers should understand that Adamsberg is trying to get inside the mindset of these families and see what triggers their anger and what old business is part of their thinking and motivates them.

    Is it any different when old families in Italy avenge decades-old crimes?

    I forgave Vargas the elaborate plot as Adamsberg still relied on his thinking and evidence to figure out the criminal.

    • Thanks, so much, Kathy, for this wonderful and spirited defence of Vargas. I agree with an enormous amount of what you say: she is a wonderfully creative and quirky author, and uses her historian’s knowledge to great effect to produce riveting crime novels. It was just the ending of this particular novel (the very last bit) and the way it retrospectively coloured the rest of the narrative that I had a problem with.

      I don’t want to say too much for fear of giving anything away, but I was very surprised at how far that last bit went in terms of supporting a particular character’s beliefs and rationale… In that sense it appears to be different to the werewolf case (I take your point about that one having a non-supernatural basis).

  7. Just one: In the book with the search for the “werewolf,” Adamsberg is listening to the folklore of the rather backward farmers who live in isolated mountain regions, where superstition and old stories have been handed down. Vargas is getting the readers into that world, and Adamsberg has to do that to solve the murders. It makes for a lot more creative writing and reading than I can say of many writers today.

  8. 9/03/13 Ghost riders of Ordebeck a new Vargas book published in England, according to Amazon, you can pre-order it. As I’ve borrowed all her books from Bromley House I’ll put in a request for the new one. Judging by the synopsis, another unusually case, to me that’s what makes her books so interesting, don’t agree with guilty pleasures, there’s just great books!

    If you’ve not read it yet you might like to read Simon Mawer’s ‘The Glass Room’ for your course. It starts before the war, & finishes with the collapse of Communism. It’s mainly based in Czechoslovakia. an excellent book by a very good author.

    Phillip Kerr has a new Bernie Gunther novel out on the 14 of March. This one takes place in 1943, & he is seconded to the German War Crimes Unit! Yes I had to read that twice! Anyway it’s about the massacre of the Polish Officer & intellectually class by the Russians.

  9. Hmmm. I may have to revisit the ending of An Uncertain Place. I remember it as having a solution based on Adamsberg’s investigation and his conclusions based on what he learns about the region and the people. But I think I’ll look at it again.

  10. I like your review even though Ms Vargas and I are not destined to meet again…this was the last book of hers that I read and the one that decided me not to keep trying. My synapses don’t process the books well. C’est la vie.

    • Thanks, Bernadette, and yes, I know what you mean. If you don’t get on with a particular series there’s no point in trudging grimly on. There are way too many crime novels out there to choose from in any case…

  11. I am getting An Uncertain Place back, and will reread the last chapter. Perhaps Vargas is being tongue-in cheek? She does toy with the readers. And she is a scientific person.
    Anyway, I will reread the last chapter and ponder her meaning. What a delicious task.

  12. Vargas is my absolute favourite crime writer. I was avoiding your review because I thought it was for the latest book, but Karen from Eurocrime tipped me off it was for an earlier one. I enjoyed this one, but agree it wasn’t her best. I think her slightly skewed look on the world is better suited to the French environment. I found that her style, mixed with Romania and graveyards almost too surreal. I am half way through her latest book which is absolutely wonderful. Vargas back on top form!

    • Thanks, Sarah! Interesting you should make the point about setting: I was initially put off reading this one because I could see from the back cover that part of the novel was set in London and wasn’t sure how well Adamsberg / the style of Vargas’ writing would travel beyond France. I thought the London section was done well in the end (most places have an element of gothic about them that Vargas can exploit – not least London), but I know what you mean – the French setting is probably the one that will always work best.

  13. I love Fred Vargas, too. Her books are challenging more than the vast majority of crime fiction published. They provide enormous information and are superbly interesting. I even learn a thing or two.

    I took on willingly the assignment of re-examining the ending of An Uncertain Place to see if I thought the mystery’s solution was based on scientific investigating and deductive reasoning. Yes. I think it was. It included following clues, traveling to interview people and examine historic sites relevant to the story, which Adamsberg did.

    In the end, it’s Danglard who is explaining various phenomena scientifically dealing with dead bodies and so on. And Adamsberg makes some provocative statements and asks quite a question at the very end.

    I don’t think Vargas has forsaken science. I think she’s created a great, yet quirky story, as always, and has counterposed various ideas, represented by Danglard and Adamsberg — although other police officers are way off into unscientific thinking.
    Adamsberg is thinking and asks a question at the end. I think Vargas is being interesting and provocative. She wants the readers to both think and be entertained. She’s not answering the question. I reread it and laughed at the end. Perhaps Vargas wanted us to do that. I think so.

    • Thanks, Kathy. It’s great that you went back to have another look, and yes, I can see that the argument you make is persuasive. I think you’re right that she’s being deliberately provocative and may wish to make us laugh with the openness of that last question 🙂

      As ever, though, these things elicit different reactions from different readers. I went back and reread the ending as well, and was still left feeling annoyed! That’s just me though…! After Sarah and eurocrime’s recommendations, I’m keen to read Ghost Riders. Have you read that one yet, Kathy?

  14. No, I am impatiently awaiting Ghost Riders of Ordebec. It’s out of stock at Book Depository. Amazon isn’t getting it until late June over here. I see it’s available in March at some sites. I have to find it. It’s expensive at a few places, but I may bite the bullet and just pay that. The library doesn’t have it yet, not even on order. I can’t wait.

  15. I am commenting late, but I had to say that the elements that you usually avoid in a mystery (the supernatural elements, the use of intuition) are also what I avoid. I did not like the first one, but am determined to try other books in this series because I have read so many positive reviews. But maybe not this one. Thanks for this review, which was very useful to me.

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