Thursday, August 02, 2007

Fred Vargas is positively medieval

I knew Vargas was a medieval historian and archaeologist. More recently I read that she had done research on the epidemiology of the Black Death. The latter certainly figures prominently in Have Mercy on Us All. In Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand, protagonist Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg's recurring fantasy of stuffing Strasbourg Cathedral, one of the great medieval buildings, full of noxious beasts is redolent of plague imagery from medieval art.

In Have Mercy ... , a town crier and an impoverished keeper of a boardinghouse team up in the opening chapters to investigate puzzling messages that keep turning up in the letterbox where the crier gathers his news. The two have a testy relationship and, in their contrasting turns of mind and their squabbling, are a kind of humorous echo of the intuitive Adamsberg and his erudite, analytical lieutenant, Danglard.

It's tempting to think that Vargas took that echo-in-miniature idea from the Middle Ages. Medieval painters, sculptors, manuscript illuminators and embroiderers loved to populate their work with marginal figures that fill space, provide decoration, or, as in this example from the Bayeux Tapestry, echo, supplement, or comment on the main action.

None of this is necessary to enjoy Vargas' writing, but it's fun to think about and just might give some insight into her technique.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

You are obviously enjoying your Vargas.
Can we designate you the Vicomte de Vargas?

August 02, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Well, it's not up there with king or queen, but I'll take it. Thanks.

August 02, 2007  
Blogger Dave Knadler said...

Yes, I'm beginning to suspect Ms. Vargas is funneling a portion of her royalties your way.

I suppose I'll have to pick up Wash This Blood since you won't stop raving about it.

August 02, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Ms. Vargas is funneling no more of her royalties my way than are any other of the select group of authors up to whom I suck. But she is well worth reading -- different from many other crime writers. A colleague today was raving about Ken Bruen and complaining about crime novels that move slowly and "explain everything." Such a reader might not be temperamentally suited to Fred Vargas.

August 02, 2007  
Anonymous Karen C said...

I've always thought of Vargas as writing characters that don't stick on the airs and graces for the visitors - they are what they are - take them or leave them.

There are some similarities in stylings between Temple's The Broken Shore and Vargas (in my feeble mind at least) - or that could just be that I love the styles from both authors.

August 06, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Karen, you're not feeble-minded. In fact, I'll encourage you in your search for similarities between The Broken Shore and Vargas. The Broken Shore has something like the slow fuse present in both of the Vargas novels I've read, especially Have Mercy On Us All. Neither Vargas nor Temple rushes to get to the killings. That is unusual enough to get any crime-fiction reader to sit up and take notice. We know something unusual is going on.

Another result of this narrative technique is that by the time the author does get to the crimes, the reader knows the protagonist pretty well. And both write more than well enough to make those protagonists compelling.

Do you buy that? Whether you do or not, let me know what similarities you see. If nothing else, that will let us discuss two fine crime writers.

August 07, 2007  
Anonymous KarenC said...

The similarity you have commented on is quite right Peter - it is that build up of the characters, establishing a style of narrative as well as giving you time to learn about somebody - in some cases more by what is not said than what is said that is similar in both these books. The other similarity - now I dwell on it for a while - is the use of quirky, unusual, unexpected elements. The slight woo woo element in Vargas's books that just seems to fit (have you read Colin Cotterill's book incidentally) and whilst there is no woo woo as such in The Broken Shore there is the use of the slightly unusual dogs - poodles are hunting dogs, it's perfectly feasible for a man to own two - but it's not so common here and it was unusual enough to make you sit up and pay notice to what seems to be a very unusual type of bloke. In all books Vargas seems to have no problems in making Adamsberg quirky - a bit odd - just different enough to make you sit up and take notice.

August 07, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I know from your comments elsewhere that woo-woo means supernatural, and I have commented on its use in The Coroner's Lunch, the first of Cotterill's Laos series. That sort of thing is not normally my cup of tea, but I thought Cotterill handled it very cleverly, introducing it first in the form of Siri Paiboun's dreams. Who could not relate to dreams? That set me up to believe that any ghosts and such that appeared later were not literally weird phenomena, but poetic expressions of the way Siri thinks.

Vargas does something like that with, say, Joss Le Guern and his great-grandfather in Have Mercy On Us All. The first occurrence is in a bar; it's easy to accept a drunk talking to someone who isn't there. Thus, Vargas introduces a weird element painlessly.

August 07, 2007  

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