#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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Summer’s here! Mrs Peabody’s holiday crime fiction recommendations

Now that it’s July, my thoughts are turning to the serious business of holiday reading.

Choosing reading matter to take on holiday is something I take extremely seriously: an afternoon of peaceful reading with ice-cubes tinkling in a cool drink by my side is one of my chief holiday pleasures, and the quality, quantity and variety of the crime fiction in my suitcase needs to be just right. Major disasters in the past have included being caught short in Spain, resulting in an exhaustive hunt for an English-language bookshop, and paying well over the odds for some crime fiction in New Zealand, where book prices are incredibly high. As a result, I now always carry a small library with me abroad (Kindle, of course, is another option, although I like to take second-hand paperbacks I can leave for other holiday-makers, which I then cunningly replace in my luggage with souvenirs).

The following are some random holiday crime fiction recommendations – all books that I’ve read and enjoyed, albeit for varying reasons. If you feel like posting suggestions in return I’d be very pleased to see them.

  • Light and frothy, with an emphasis on entertainment. Perfect for lounging by the pool or whiling away a few hours in a café with a cappuccino.

Fred Vargas’ Detective Commissaire Adamsberg series: a quirky and erudite collection of crime novels, mostly set in Paris. It’s not essential to read them in order, in my view, but Have Mercy on Us All is a good place to start. You may or may not know, but Fred is actually a female author, and an archaeologist by trade.

Colin Bateman’s Mystery Man: Murder, Mayhem and Damn Sexy Trousers (2009). It’s rare for writers to pull off a successful comic crime novel. This one made me laugh out loud, in spite of its ultimately rather serious subject matter – the legacy of the Nazi past and the weighty theme of post-war justice. A deft juggling act.

Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen series (televised earlier this year). Written quite a while ago now, but they’ve held up well, with a nicely rounded investigative figure. A wry look at Italian policing, politics and life. An earlier Mrs P. post on Ratking is available here.

  • Stronger stuff – more intense and challenging crime. The sort of novel you might not normally get round to, and which isn’t necessarily the easiest of reads in terms of its content or style.

Andrew Taylor’s Roth Trilogy. Brilliant and somewhat underrated, this trilogy excavates the history of a sociopathic killer, moving backwards in time from the present day to the 1970s and the 1950s. Best read in order for cumulative effect.

George P. Pelecanos, The Big Blowdown. First in the Washington Quartet by an author also famous for his contribution to The Wire. Grim and gritty depiction of D.C. just after the Second World War. Breathtakingly good.

Jussi Adler Olsen’s Mercy – a recent Danish sensation, which is brilliantly written, but very hard-hitting. First in the Department Q series, featuring detective Carl Mørck. A Mrs P. review of Mercy is available here.

Happy holidays and enjoy!