Crime Scene: FRED VARGAS A Climate of Fear. Reviewed by Derek Dryden
This enjoyably quirky and nourishing police procedural is typically Vargas.
The Inspector Adamsberg series, of which A Climate of Fear is the eighth instalment, all contain a delicious quirkiness and sense of fun that springs from the pen of this best-selling French novelist. Fred Vargas is a historian and archaeologist by profession, has had her books translated into 45 languages and has sold over 10 million copies.
This book opens with a body in the bathtub. Elderly Alice Gauthier struggles on her walker to the post box to post a letter and five days later she is dead. She has apparently run a bath and stepped in, fully dressed and perfectly coiffed, and simply slit her wrists. And that would have been the end of it, except that Commissaire Bourlin of Paris’s 15th arrondissement doesn’t like suicides where there is no note. And he especially doesn’t like suicides where the victim has washed her hair that morning and is wearing perfume. Then they find, scratched beside the bath, a barely discernible sign that looks a little like a guillotine. Bourlin decides to consult Adamsberg’s subordinate, Danglard, and the serious crimes unit of the 13th determines that Alice Gauthier’s death is probably not a suicide.
With a stroke of luck, Adamsberg discovers the recipient of the letter Alice Gauthier posted just before her death, and with his entourage in tow, drives to a stud farm outside the capital. Arriving to interview Amédée Masfauré, he finds the local gendarmes have only recently left:
Adamsberg had taken himself outside the group and was walking in circles, hands behind his back, kicking pieces of gravel in front of him. Watch out, he remembered, go around in circles and you’ll corkscrew yourself into the ground. Another suicide, dear God, the very day after Alice Gauthier’s. Adamsberg listened to the difficult conversation now taking place between the thin little woman and the bulky commissaire. Henri Masfauré was Amédée’s father. He had killed himself on Wednesday night, with his shotgun, but his son had only found him next morning. Bourlin wouldn’t let go: offering his sympathies, he was very sorry, he was here about something completely different, nothing so serious he assured her. What was that? A letter from Madame Gauthier to Monsieur Amédée. This lady was now dead and Amédée must have received her last wishes.
‘We don’t know any Madame Gauthier.’
But of course Amédée has met Alice Gauthier, summoned to her home by the urgent letter posted days before her death. He too is sceptical that she had committed suicide as she had just commenced a big jigsaw puzzle when he visited her, of a painting by Corot. A search of Amédée’s father’s study locates a faint imprint of the guillotine motif, so both ‘suicides’ are definitely linked. Amédée tells the police officers that Alice Gauthier had revealed that his mother had been murdered in Iceland a decade earlier.
A third death quickly follows, that of Jean Breuguel, whose flat contains three new books on Iceland and, low on a skirting board, the guillotine insignia. All clues point to the mysterious events 10 years earlier in Iceland, where both Amédée’s mother and another man were murdered. But there the investigation stalls. Until Adamsberg receives a letter in handwriting he describes as almost calligraphic from François Château, President of the Association for the Study of the Writings of Maximilien Robespierre. When they meet, François Château tells Adamsberg that the 700 members of the Association meet regularly in period costume and faithfully re-enact the sessions of the National Assembly during the Revolution; sessions that ultimately resulted in some poor citizen being despatched by the guillotine.
This new information takes Adamsberg’s focus away from Iceland to the disturbingly convincing re-enactments at the Association. Henri Masfauré was the society’s greatest benefactor and both Alice Gauthier and Jean Breuguel were members. The way forward is not clear, and before the denouement, Adamsberg will travel to the tiny Fox Island off Iceland and feel the icy breath of the afturganga, the legendary Icelandic demon.
Fred Vargas has created a delightful set of characters. From Adamsberg’s grisly Spanish neighbour Lucio – who drinks two bottles of beer in Adamsberg’s garden every night and relieves himself, in spite of Adamsberg’s protestations, against his beech tree – to Snowdrop, the police-station cat, who will only eat upstairs, where she must be carried (and will only eat if someone sits with her), and then carried back to her warm spot on the photocopier. We also learn from Vargas that the Icelanders try not to use English words, so the local word for computer is tölva, literally ‘the witch who counts’.
Vargas writes a complicated plot with many twists and turns, but like the many meals that her policemen stop for along the way, like the chicken gizzards with pommes paillasson, A Climate of Fear is a very satisfying, very nourishing police procedural with that enjoyable quirkiness which is typically Vargas.
Derek Dryden is the founder of Newtown’s iconic bookstore Better Read Than Dead. He is a travel blogger and a sometime bookseller with the Harry Hartog group.
Fred Vargas A Climate of Fear Harvill Secker 2016 PB 416pp $32.99
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