Monday, June 27, 2011

Fred Vargas "An Uncertain Place"

Towards the end of An Uncertain Place, having cracked the case and tied the ends together, Commissaire Adamsberg phones the Serb translator who has helped sort things out. Asked about plans for the future, the translator replies that he's off to a conference and will be back on the straight and narrow which as you know does not exist and is neither straight nor narrow.

Which is, looking at it, a remarkably accurate summary of both existence and your typical Adamsberg story.

In both cases there's an apparent progression through a seemingly continuous narrative which simultaneously unfolds and jumps from place to place without apparent rhyme or reason as influences you thought were unrelated turn out to be intertwined.

You can, of course, take most detective novels and reduce them to a straightforward formulaic plot line. Detective is presented with challenging case and solves the mystery which turns out to have an unexpected element or consequence.

The first thing your average writer will do is to throw that plot line into an environment with a group of characters whose interactions are going to keep things going and add subplots and other intriguing influences to the mix.

Fred Vargas (the nom de plume of French historian and archaeologist Frédérique Audouin-Rouzeau), as anyone who has read her fiction knows, does all that at the start and then takes things off in directions that increasingly defy your expectations even when, having read everything you've been able to get your hands on. you don't actually have any.

My invariable reaction to an Adamsberg story is to scratch my head and ask myself how the (expletive deleted) could anyone come up with that?

For a start, having noted the rise of a substantial genre involving (teenage? dunno, haven't actually read, not really interested) vampires I hadn't anticipated reading any of it since that whole Nosferatu/Vlad the Impaler thing doesn't really float my boat, yet here we are wandering off to not-quite-Transylvania to track down a case that seemingly involves interactions between and among the undead and their legacy.

Then there's the strange coincidence of people who've got it in for Adamsberg who turn out to be related in unexpected ways, and not necessarily related to Adamsberg.

Or not. As the case may be.

The key point is, I think, that when you pick up an Adamsberg novel you know you're headed for strange territory, so it's a case of suspending logic and any set of expectations and settle down for the ride.

Put bluntly, this time around Adamsberg starts off at a a three-day conference in London where he encounters (shock! horror!) a macabre, bizarre and brutal case. Returning to Paris he encounters a second case which turns out to be related to the first one and needs an excursion to Serbia to tie the elements together.

Oh, yes, and the whole thing centres around the undead and represents the culmination of themes that run back a couple of centuries.

Along the way you know you're going to encounter an extravagance of eccentricities, and once again they're present in spades. Adamsberg, for a start, blithely wanders through a conference conducted in a language he doesn't speak while his translator, the encyclopedic Danglard becomes smitten by a female participant whose name appears to be Abstract. Apart from his lack of English, there's Adamsberg's inability to remember precise detail, so New Scotland Yard's Inspector Radstock becomes Stock, and London's baroque old Highgate Cemetery becomes Higg-gate. It's all in the detail, you see.

The starting point for the ride, once the scene has been set, is a collection of seventeen shoes, each containing a severed foot, apparently seeking admission to the cemetery. Danglard notices that some of the shoes are French, but Adamsberg cautions him against getting involves. Let the English handle it, and all that.

Back in Paris, there's a brutal murder in suburbia where the victim's body has been pulverized by a miscellaneous assortment of sharp, blunt and powered devices to the point where there's nothing left to identify him except for traces of DNA and there's some sort of logic behind the apparently random scattering of body parts around the crime scene.

The victim, a rich semi-retired legal-journalist who was not quite cordially disliked by almost everybody, including his son (who describes him as chateau-bottled shit), has left most of his fortune to his gardener, who happens to have a criminal record involving a number of violent offences, which naturally puts him straight into the frame.

Characteristically, Adamsberg doesn't think he did it and isn't inclined to expend too much energy when he escapes, having managed to disable two police guards.

Checks reveal a similar death in Austria, where the killer has been labelled Zerquetscher, the Crusher, an epithet Adamsberg diminished to Zerk, who eventually arrives in Adamsberg's home, claiming to be his son.

These things happen all the time when Adamsberg's about.

There are also the regulation complications among Adamsberg's squad, with Danglard distracted by Abstract and the usually efficient Inspector Mordent distracted by his teenage daughter, who's facing serious criminal charges and provides an excuse for someone to get at her father.

That someone, it seems, has contacts among the upper echelons of the French political and legal establishment and is in a position to conceal the identity of the culprit and simultaneously destroy Adamsberg’s career.

Faced with that threat, Adamsberg makes himself scarce, heading to Serbia and a village close to the Romanian border, which turns out to be the victim's ancestral home and gives Vargas the chance to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of vampire-related folklore.

The sojourn also gives Adamsberg the chance to tie things together, though the vital clue, as usually happens, passes you unnoticed until the Aha! moment, when, of course, you find yourself wondering why you didn't notice that at the time.

Or at least, on this occasion wrapped up in the developing narrative, I did.

And that, I think is the point. An Adamsberg story develops throws up a bewildering range of apparently unrelated elements as Jean-Baptiste and his colleagues set about their investigations with Adamsberg adopting a scatter-gun approach and seemingly investigating everything that might be relevant and quite a bit that probably isn't but, in some cases, turns out to be.

If you're a fan of logical development through forensic analysis and standard procedures there's every chance Fred Vargas isn't quite your cup of tea. On the other hand, each of the Adamsberg stories has rolled along quite marvellously as a remarkable character and his inimitable squad wander through a surreal world that parallels reality but doesn't quite manage to exist within it.

An eighth title, L'armée furieuse is already out in France. Hopefully we're not looking at a repetition of the three years An Uncertain Place spent in translation. though these matters cannot and definitely should not be hurried.

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