A Climate of Fear by Fred Vargas

A Climate of Fear (Commissaire Adamsberg #10)

A Climate of Fear by Fred Vargas (see below*), translated from the French by Siân Reynolds, is her 9th Commissaire Adamsberg book.

I had high expectations for this book and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s as quirky and original as the other Commissaire Adamsberg books I’ve read (I’ve read five of them, including this one). I like Adamsberg; he’s original, a thinker, who doesn’t like to express his feelings, but mulls things over. He’s an expert at untangling mysteries, an invaluable skill in this, one of the most complicated and intricate mysteries I’ve read. He’d compared the investigation right from the start to a huge tangled knot of seaweed, and summed it up at the end:

… you can’t just plunge into a thing like that. We were pulling out tiny little broken fragments, and getting drawn into other traps. We had elements, clues, but they were floating, dozens of them, just under the surface without any apparent connection between them, in a sort of fog. The whole thing had been drowned in confusion by this twisted and determined killer. (pages 393-394)

The ‘tangled knot‘ is most confusing to begin with, made up of a woman found bleeding to death in her bath, having apparently committed suicide, a strange symbol that appears at subsequent death scenes, a secretive society studying and re-enacting scenes from the French Revolution, and two deaths ten years earlier on an isolated island off the coast of Iceland, where the afturganga, the demon who owns the island summons people to their death.

As in earlier books, Fred Vargas brings in elements of the supernatural, of folk tales, myths and legends, all of which is fascinating and intricately woven into the murder mystery. I loved all of it, especially the tense and fraught relationship that developed between Adamsberg and his team as they became increasingly unable to follow Adamsberg’s line of thought. I also enjoyed reading the details about Robespierre and the part he played in the French Revolution during the Reign of Terror, plus the little quirky details such as those about the cat who sleeps on the photocopier and the tame wild boar that guards one of the characters.

All in all, a brilliant book.

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Harvill Secker (14 July 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1910701386
  • ISBN-13: 978-1910701386
  • Source: I borrowed it from my local library
  • My Rating: 5*

These are the other books I’ve read by Fred Vargas:

* Fred Vargas is the pseudonym of the French historian, archaeologist and writer Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau.

The Ghost Riders of Ordebec by Fred Vargas

I really enjoyed The Ghost Riders of Ordebec. It’s full of  eccentric and quirky characters, an intriguing mystery beginning with the death of an old woman, killed with breadcrumbs, then a car is burnt out with someone inside, and a pigeon is found with its legs tied together so it can’t fly.

But the main mystery Commissaire* Adamsberg has to solve is the strange tale a woman from Ordebec, a little village in Normandy, presents to him.

Blurb:

‘People will die,’ says the panic-stricken woman outside police headquarters.

She refuses to speak to anyone besides Commissaire Adamsberg. Her daughter has seen a vision: ghostly horsemen who target the most nefarious characters in Normandy. Since the middle ages there have been stories of murderers, rapists, those with serious crimes on their conscience, meeting a grisly end following a visitation by the riders.

Soon after the young woman’s vision a notoriously vicious and cruel man disappears. Although the case is far outside his jurisdiction, Adamsberg agrees to investigate the strange happenings in a village terrorised by wild rumours and ancient feuds.

My thoughts:

This is the 8th book in Fred Vargas’ series of Commissaire Adamsberg books. I’ve previously read two, so I’ve a bit of catching up to do. But although there are obviously events that I don’t know about (the appearance of a son, aged 28, that he hadn’t known about, for one thing) this doesn’t detract from the story. I loved all the strange characters – not just the odd people living in Ordebec, but also Adamsberg’s fellow police officers whom he describes as:

 … a hypersomniac who goes to sleep without warning, a zoologist whose speciality is fish, freshwater fish in particular, a woman with bulimia who keeps disappearing in search of food, an old heron who knows a lot of myths and legends, a walking encyclopaedia who drinks white wine non-stop — and the rest to match. (page 67)

And I also loved the medieval myths and legends forming the basis of the plot: the ghostly army that gallops along the Chemin de Bonneval, led by the terrifying Lord Hellequin.

Adamsberg is a thinker ‘ but a vague thinker ‘ he works mainly on intuition, and in this book his intuition and deductive reasoning have to work overtime. I was thoroughly immersed in this book, enjoying the humour as well as the mystery, intrigued to see how the crimes came together and how the pigeon was rescued. It’s original, and maybe not altogether plausible, but most definitely a treat to read.

Fred Vargas is the pseudonym of the French historian, archaeologist and writer Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau.

*Commissaire is roughly the equivalent of a British Superintendent. His colleagues’ ranks in descending order are commandant, lieutenant and brigadier.

Crime Fiction Alphabet: V is for Vargas

This week’s letter in Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet is V.

My choice of book is The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas, translated from the French by Siân Reynolds. This is the first of her Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg novels.

From the back cover:

Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is not like other policemen. He doesn’t search for clues; he ignores obvious suspects and arrests people with cast-iron alibis; he appears permanently distracted. In spite of this his colleagues are forced to admit that he is a born cop.

When strange blue chalk circles start appearing on the pavements of Paris, only Adamsberg takes them – and the increasingly bizarre objects fround within them – seriously. And when the body of a woman with her throat savagely cut is found in one, only Adamsberg realises that other murders will soon follow.

My view:

As soon as I began reading this book I was entertained – the writing is fluent (unlike the translation I read of her later book Seeking Whom He May Devour) and easily conveyed the quirky nature of Vargas’s plot and characters. As the book cover summary describes, Adamsberg just doesn’t fit the usual detective profile – well, he is a loner, so that’s pretty standard, but apart from that he stands out  – an outsider from the Pyrenees, newly appointed to Paris as Commissaire of police headquarters in the 5th arrondissement. His colleagues don’t understand him, especially Inspector Danglard, who likes a drink and isn’t too reliable after about four in the afternoon.

Vargas goes into some detail both about Adamsberg’s history, appearance and characteristics, and about Danglard. Adamsberg is a thinker – but a vague thinker – he works mainly on intuition, whereas Danglard doesn’t trust feelings and gut instincts. He prefers to follow procedure, looking for clues and proof. Adamsberg claims that some people just ooze cruelty:

And most premeditated murders require the murderer not only to feel exasperation or humiliation, or to have some neurosis, or whatever, but also cruelty, pleasure in inflicting suffering, pleasure in the victim’s agony and pleas for mercy, pleasure in tearing the victim apart. It’s true, it doesn’t always appear obvious in a person, but you feel at  least that there’s something wrong, that something else is gathering underneath, a kind of growth. And sometimes that turns out to be cruelty – do you see what I’m saying? A kind of growth. (pages 17-18)

The chalk circle man intrigues Adamsberg and it is his meditation on his character that leads him to solve the mystery – but before that two other murders have taken place. Is the chalk circle man the killer, or is the killer using the circles to his own advantage? And why does he leave a lingering smell of rotten apples?

Adamsberg and Danglard are not the only eccentric characters – the book is full of them, all delightfully different including Mathilde, the marine biologist who prefers fish to people. She lets rooms to Charles, the beautiful blind man with a chip on his shoulder and to Clemence, the old lady who lives on the top floor. Clemence at seventy is still looking for the love of her life. She has an unattractive appearance with a bony face and sharp little teeth like a shrew-mouse and wears far too much make-up. I thought the interactions and conversation between these people was fascinating.

This is a very cleverly constructed and quirky mystery, and I was pleased that I did half guess the solution; I only half-guessed because there is a twist at the end which took me totally by surprise. I’ll certainly look out for more of Fred Vargas’s books to read.

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; First PB Edition edition (4 Feb 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099488973
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099488972
  • Source: Library book
  • My Rating: 4.5/5