Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Fred Vargas, queen of the slow fuse

A concerned reader wondered whether last week's post about great first lines in crime fiction may have overemphasized the importance of a whiz-bang opening. "I've trawled some of the novels I've read recently," she wrote, "and realised that the opening lines were not great, although the novels were brilliant. We're all told you need a good hook to open, but could that hook really be more than just the first line, perhaps the first page?"

That's a valid concern. In fact, the question did not go far enough. A hook, in Fred Vargas' case, can be not the first line, not the first page, but the first chapter — or chapters. Breaking from my usual practice, I posted a comment two weeks ago after reading just the opening chapter of Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand. I was astonished that Vargas opened that novel with the protagonist and his top assistant contemplating and fretting over a broken water heater and an upcoming forensics conference. The site of the conference turns out to be a key plot element, but the reader has no way of knowing this at the time. The chapter works because the characters are so interesting and the situation so odd.

Have Mercy On Us All burns with a similarly slow fuse. The flics, or police, don't make the scene until the fourth chapter. When they do, the words get right at the heart, not of the plot, but of the protagonist: "`I wonder," mused Chief Inspector Adamsberg ... '"

Those six words sum up Vargas' approach. The first three chapters are full of odd occurrences and characters surprisingly fully realized considering how "quirky" they are. But then come those six key words. Adamsberg is impatient with procedure and prone to making intuitive connections that often come to him on the long walks he loves. His wandering and wondering and musing drive the novel and drive his loyal, logical second-in-command, Danglard, nuts.

And now, back to the book, to see how Vargas works her magic. The tentative verdict is that she has as sure a grip on what she wants her protagonist to be as any author I can think of.

If you're up to it, think of some novels that are memorable for their slow buildups. Then tell me what they are and why they worked for you.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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