Fred Vargas' France
"As they left the last slivers of Mediterranean landscape behind them and began the climb towards the Col de la Croix-Haute, about ten kilometres before the summit they drove into a bank of white, fluffy fog. Soliman and Watchee were entering an alien sector and they observed their new surroundings with hostility and fascination."Last month I wrote about a fascinating connection between Fred Vargas and Fernand Braudel: The superb French crime novelist and the late, great French historian shared a translator, Siân Reynolds. In a gracious reply to my fan letter, Reynolds shed further light on possible connections. She wrote that Mrs. Braudel had told her Vargas had been to see Braudel when she was starting her own career as a historian.
But the ties between the two are more than circumstantial and biographical. Braudel and Vargas had temperamental affinities as well, and those affinities strongly inform Seeking Whom He May Devour. In this novel, second of Vargas's four about Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg that have been translated into English, Vargas shares Braudel's keen and amused interest in the physical and social diversity of their homeland. The selection quoted above is a virtual illustration of Braudel's observations in The Identity of France about the country's countless pays, its distinctive micro-regions with their own economies, traditions, and even climates.
Vargas has put a plumber/musician, a wise old shepherd, and a young, all-purpose handyman in a livestock truck converted into a camper and taken them on the road through southeastern France. Their goal: Find the man or beast who has been terrorizing the countryside and the country by slaughtering sheep and the occasional human. The journey is not terribly long, but it takes the searchers through a range of climates, geography and social attitudes. With reason, one of the characters calls their odd odyssey a road movie.
And then, at a surprisingly advanced stage in the eccentric voyage, Vargas brings Adamsberg onto the scene, a symbol, despite his utterly idiosyncratic methods, of bureaucratic, Paris-centric France, another one of Braudel's many Frances and of Vargas's as well.
But Seeking Whom He May Devour is a novel, and not a geography lesson. The leisurely, late introduction of Adamsberg lets Vargas do what she does so well: build a convincing fictional world populated by sympathetic characters before the investigation gets serious. Among other things, this means that when Vargas introduces the inevitable tensions and complications and personal notes, they seem an organic part of the novel, and not mere grafted-on human interest. We know these people. And the ground is fertile for the interpersonal dynamics that help make any journey more than a mere itinerary: The plumber/musician is Adamsberg's long-ago lover, the elusive Camille.
The mystery is fully worked out, complete with red herrings and false leads, the killings suitably gruesome, the confrontations with the killer and other bad characters suitably tense. But the pleasures of seeing the travellers developing a daily routine around their rolling home are at least as great. The delights, as in any good journey, are at least as much in the travel as in reaching the destination. Or maybe even more so.
The other Adamsberg novels are Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand, Have Mercy on Us All, and This Night's Foul Work. The last, a translation of Dans les bois éternels, which appeared in French last year, is to be published in 2008.
© Peter Rozovsky 2007
French crime fiction