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.

First Chapter First Paragraph: The Ghost Riders of Ordebec

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph, or a few, of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

My book this week is a library book that I’m thinking about reading soon. It’s The Ghost Riders of Ordebec by Fred Vargas, translated from the French by Sian Reynolds.

It begins:

A trail of tiny crumbs led from the kitchen into the bedroom, as far as the spotless sheets where the old woman lay dead, her mouth open. Commissaire Adamsberg looked down at the crumbs in silence, pacing to and fro, wondering what kind of Tom Thumb – or what ogre in this case – might have dropped them there. He was in a small, dark, ground-floor apartment, with just three rooms, in the eighteenth arrondissement, in northern Paris.

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.

What do you think? Would you keep on reading?

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

Seeking Whom He May Devour by Fred Vargas

It took me some time to ‘get into’ Seeking Whom He May Devour, mainly because of the somewhat stilted style, which may be a result of the translation from French, but as this is the first book by Fred Vargas I’ve nothing to compare it with. Looking at the reviews on Amazon, it seems as though it is the translation. Anyway, it’s a rather quirky crime fiction novel with touches of humour that appealed to me.

On the back cover it describes the book as ‘frightening and surprising’, but I didn’t find it at all frightening – surprising, yes, particularly the ending which I hadn’t expected at all. It’s set in the French mountains. Johnstone, a Canadian is living there whilst he films a documentary about wolves. The problems start when more and more sheep are found with their throats torn out. The vet says it is the work of a very large wolf and after Suzanne Rosselin told Johnstone she believed it was a werewolf, the hunt is on, despite Johnstone’s wish to leave the wolves in peace. Then Suzanne is also found dead, killed in the same way, When Massart, who worked at the slaughterhouse and lived on his own high up on Mont Vence, disappears suspicion falls on him as the werewolf.

Soliman, Suzanne’s adopted son and Watchee her shepherd persuade Camille,  a plumber/musician, who is Johnstone’s girlfriend to go with them as they try to track down Massart. They are an odd combination of characters – Soliman, a young black man who loves telling African folk stories and giving definitions of words he ‘s learnt from a dictionary, Watchee, an old man more comfortable with his sheep than people and Camille, who is writing a music soap opera and reads the A to Z of Tools for Trade and Craft for relaxation.

Soliman and Watchee enlist Camille’s help in tracking down Massart, because she can drive and they can’t. Johnstone, a man who’s not good with words, doesn’t like the idea and every now and then pops up as they travel through the French countryside on narrow hairpin tracks in a smelly old sheep wagon. I felt this section of the book was over-long but I did like their philosophising and story-telling. I also liked the little touches of humour, such as the episode where Watchee phones a friend who puts his mobile in Watchee’s leading ewe’s ear so he can talk to her, to keep her spirits up whilst he is away.

With the help of Commissaire Jean- Baptiste Adamsberg the killer is finally tracked down. Adamsberg is another eccentric character, a policeman who is being stalked by a girl who is obsessed with the idea of killing him. He has his own way of working things out:

Adamsberg put one thing in another, or turned them upside down, or scattered what had been brought together and threw it up in the air to see where it would fall. And despite his amazingly slow pace, he would in the end, extract truth from that chaos. (page 109)

By the end of this book I was really enjoying it. It isn’t a scary book, but neither is it a ‘cozy’ mystery. It’s different from any other crime fiction that I’ve read and I want to read more by Fred Vargas. This is the second in her Chief Inspector Adamsberg series but it reads fine as a stand-alone book.

Teaser Tuesday – Seeking Whom He May Devour

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Share a couple or more sentences from the book you’re currently reading.

Today’s teaser is from Seeking Whom he May Devour by Fred Vargas:

‘You’re really weird,’ he said. ‘You see no evil anywhere. I’m afraid you’re blind.’ (page 125)

Seeking Whom He May Devour is an intriguing book as Vargas describes the various episodes where sheep are found in the French mountains with their throats torn out. Then a woman is found killed in the same way. People are convinced it’s the work of a werewolf except for Johnstone, a Canadian staying in France to film wolves, a man of few words who doesn’t believe in werewolves.

It  is not a fast-paced book, but has a feel of fable and legend about it, telling a tale of death, attitudes to life and death and a pilgrimage of sorts as the murderer is tracked down.