Fred Vargas, An Uncertain Place, translated from the French by Sian Reynolds (London: Vintage, 2012 ). 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.