Vargas doesn’t spare us the grisly details of outrageous crimes committed against defenseless girls and women, but never have I ever wanted to be in a mystery novel before. The characterizations of police officers and villagers are so full of personality, intelligence, and humor that one cannot help but wish these folks were by one’s side—or at least televised.
According to Wikipedia, four of the Vargas mystery series have been serialized for television. I saw one, once, years ago. It was painful, considering the renown of French cinema and the intrigue of the novels. it is definitely time for a new rendition.
Any new film series of the novels must be filmed in France and in French because the charm of the series is the utter French-ness of the interactions, the local dishes like the cabbage soup with onions and ham the officers eat nearly every night of the investigation, and endless bottles of Madiran.
Vargas has given us a convoluted mystery so dense with criminality that we scarcely know which way to turn. Just today I was listening to Vox's Today Explained podcast discussing the many thousands of rape kits in American cities which were never run for DNA: when the kits were finally examined, the entire body of knowledge around rape and serial rape has been turned on its head. It turns out that there were many, many more rapists than one ever thought possible, and one out of every five rapes is caused by a serial rapist.
There has been, as can be seen in the history revealed in this novel and in the untested rape kits languishing on shelves in police stations all over America, a dismissive attitude towards crimes against women. In this mystery, some truly horrifying crimes are described (thankfully in a matter-of-fact, non-inflammatory way) and some male attitudes are examined for bias. At one point Chief Inspector Adamsberg realizes describing his favorite female lieutenant as worth “ten men” would be better changed to “one woman.” Those of us who have worked with colleagues of both sexes are pleased Vargas made a point of chastising Adamsberg for old attitudes.
Vargas is known for the depth of her knowledge about medieval subjects and archeology and gradually she incorporates some of her encyclopedic knowledge in this more modern mystery. There is an archeological dig, and we learn how to find the site and what it takes to manage it. There is a medieval tie-in, but the shocking part is that it sounds medieval when in fact some of the events happened within recent history.
Chief Inspector Jean Baptiste Adamsberg always puts me in mind of Simenon’s Jules Maigret, though the two police chiefs are quite different in many ways. One difference is that Maigret, unless my memory is faulty, wasn't necessarily a masterful team leader. Adamsberg is far from alone. We are intimately familiar with his entire team and grow to rely on them to keep their chief operating in maximum intuition. Adamsberg's “tiny bubbles of gas in [his] brain” jiggle when he walks, stimulating thought. Not so far, then, from Poirot’s “little grey cells.”
This novel, originally published in May of 2017 by Flammarion of France, has been translated by Siân Reynolds, winner of many awards, including a coveted Dagger from Crime Writers’ Association. Reynolds is a professor emerita of French at the University of Stirling, Scotland. In her words,
”… Fred’s books are quirky and often fantastical, sometimes with historical elements, and much appreciated in France. They are about French characters usually in a recognizably French environment, and will necessarily seem a bit foreign to anglophone readers, so the aim is to make them enjoyable on their own terms – but in English.”This Reynolds does in spades. The novels are a remarkable glimpse of French culture and altogether are a marvelous series. Highly recommended.
More reviews of Vargas works:
The Chalk Circle Man
This Night's Foul Work