by Helen Currie Foster
Her sheer imagination, her complex and nearly crazy—yet convincing—plots, have won Fred Vargas three International Dagger Awards from the Crime Writers Association for her policiers, or police procedurals. Vargas is the nom de plume of Fréderique Audoin-Rouzeau, a French medieval historian and archeologist (born in Paris 1952) who worked at the Institut Pasteur. Vargas provides a vividly unusual police environment with her Paris-based Serious Crime Squad, headed by Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg. I immediately fell for her idiosyncratic protagonist—Adamsberg is Pyrenees born, left handed, a water-colorist who paints in order to puzzle out murder inquiries, and who alternately frustrates and mesmerizes his staff through his unconventional thinking. Vargas has steadily added a cadre of interesting characters to Adamsberg’s team, each quite odd in his or her own way (not forgetting the large white cat which sleeps atop the copier and must be carried to its food bowl—a cat which demonstrates great heroism in This Night’s Foul Work) (tr. 2008).
Aside from some rare omniscient inserts, Vargas tells her stories primarily through the eyes of the police characters, primarily Adamsberg. We see Adamsberg’s chief lieutenant, Commandant Adrien Danglard, through Adamsberg’s eyes. Danglard is OCD, possessed of nearly photographic memory, a polymath with vast knowledge of science and history, subject to anxiety attacks. At the beginning of An Uncertain Place (tr. 2011) Adamsberg is racing for the Eurostar to meet Danglard and board the Chunnel for a conference in London when he gets Danglard’s text:
“Rdv 80 min GdNord Eurostar gate. Fckin tnnl. Have smart jkt + tie 4 U.”
In this abbreviated text Vargas telegraphs Danglard’s character and his relationship to Adamsberg. We instantly see that Danglard is clock-bound, controlling in his insistence on proper attire for Adamsberg (correctly predicting his boss’s over-casual packing), and terrified of traveling under the Channel.
Vargas develops her protagonist and his foil by giving us each character’s point of view on the other’s mental processes. In An Uncertain Place, Adamsberg sees Danglard like this:
Adamsberg imagined Danglard’s mind as a block of fine limestone, where rain, in other words questions, had hollowed out countless basins in which his worries gathered, unresolved. Every day, three or four of these basins were active simultaneously.
On the other hand, Danglard often despairs of Adamsberg’s unconventional mental processes:
It was less easy to seize hold of him when his mental equipment was dislocated into several moving parts, which was his usual state. But it became completely impossible when this state intensified to the point of dispersal…Adamsberg at such times seemed to move like a diver, his body and mind swooping gracefully without any precise objective. His eyes followed the movement, taking on the look of dark brown algae and conveying to his interlocutor a sensation of indeterminacy, flow, non-existence. To accompany Adamsberg in these extremes…was like swimming into deep water…
Indeed, the members of Adamsberg’s squad are split on his intuitive approach, which they call “cloud-shoveling.” Many in the squad would frankly prefer a more Cartesian, rationalist approach. An Uncertain Place begins with the discovery of severed feet (i.e. from corpses) lined up in pairs of French shoes at the entrance to Highgate Cemetery in London. (I told you the plots are wild.) Back in Paris, when Adamsberg eventually connects the severed feet to a Serbian legend tinged with vampirism, part of his squad rebels:
At this point, the antagonism which divided the members of the squad resurfaced: the materialist positivists were seriously annoyed by Adamsberg’s vague wanderings, sometimes to the point of rebellion, while the more conciliatory group did not object to a spot of cloud-shovelling from time to time.
Adamsberg tries to convince the magnificent woman lieutenant, Violette Retancourt—a positivist irritated by Adamsberg’s vagueness—that there is indeed a connection:
“We’re not looking for a vampire, Retancourt,” said Adamsberg firmly, “we’re not going out into the streets to search for some creature who got a stake through his heart in the early eighteenth century. Surely that’s clear enough for you, lieutenant.”
“No, not really.”
Vargas highlights our variation in mental processes—how we each investigate, , how we think—in Have Mercy on Us All (tr. 2003), which draws heavily on Vargas’s own research into the Black Death and bubonic plague (published as Les Chemins de la peste or “Routes of the Plague”, 2003). Someone in Paris is drawing a symbol like a backwards number four on apartment doors in highrise apartments, leaving inside each apartment ivory envelopes which contain fleas, with messages inside that draw on medieval Latin texts about the plague’s arrival, first in Paris, later in Marseilles. And, yes, the fleas are nosopsyllus fasciatus, connected with the plague. These details draw us from Paris highrise apartments to the itching swollen bites in Danglard’s armpits and the image of the anglophile commandant leaping out of his I-love-the-English tweeds into déclassé black jeans and a baggy t-shirt—confounding the other members of his squad.
Meanwhile, dead bodies appear in the streets. Modern Parisians become terrified when news outlets report that the last arrival of the plague in Paris, in 1920, was hushed up by the authorities. Adamsberg vainly points out that the dead bodies being found were each strangled and the black splotches on their bodies are merely powdered charcoal. With the investigation stymied, he senses that he himself missed a step, missed a clue. He decides to spend the afternoon in a Paris square waiting for the local Breton newscaster—a former sailor named Joss whose gig is to read aloud to the waiting audience the “news” envelopes submitted by various listeners:
Adamsberg enjoyed listening to the harmless small ads in pale sunlight. An entire afternoon spent doing bugger all except letting body and mind wind down had helped him recover…He had reached the level of animation of a sponge bobbing about on a stormy sea. It was a state he sometimes sought specifically.
And at the close of the newscast, as Joss was announcing the wreck of the day, he jumped, as if a pebble had just hit the sponge hard. The bump almost hurt physically, leaving Adamsberg nonplussed and alert. He could not tell where it had come from. It was necessarily a picture that had hit him while he’d been drowsing with his shoulder leaning on the trunk of the plane—a fleeting frame, a split-second flash of a visual detail of some kind.
Adamsberg straightened up and scanned the whole scene in search of the lost image, trying to recover the sense of shock.
Haven’t we each sometimes waked up with the sense we missed something, something we heard, something we saw? And tried to retrieve it? No spoilers here as to what Adamsberg will recall.
Of course we need logic and intuition, visual and auditory memory, history and scientific analysis. Vargas’s hypercreative plots, often rooted in French myth and history, require not only Danglard’s enormous historical knowledge and ratiocination, but Adamsberg’s “swimming into deep water.” What initially looks like ordinary murder in Paris, or Normandy, becomes, at Vargas’s hands, a mythic quest, a trip down the rabbit hole where, finally, an unexpected mystery is solved. We think we’re just cloud-shoveling, but suddenly all the threads come together and we see the whole picture—far more complex than we’d dreamed—at last.
The Adamsberg books are a treat, but anyone who has ever been a grad student will also relish Vargas’s unlikely trio of graduate students and their roles in solving murders: The Three Evangelists (tr. 2006), Dog Will Have His Day (tr. 2014), and The Accordionists (tr. 2017). A new Adamsberg will arrive in August. More cloud-shoveling!
Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series. She earned a BA from Wellesley College, an MA from the University of Texas, and a JD from the University of Michigan.
Having grown up in Texas surrounded by books and storytelling, she taught high school English and later became a prize-winning feature writer for a small Michigan weekly. Following a career of more than thirty years as an environmental lawyer, the character Alice and her stories suddenly appeared in Foster’s life. In her writing, Foster explores the interaction between history and the present and the reasons we tell the stories we do.
Married with two children, she lives north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She works in Austin, and she’s active with the Hays County Master Naturalists and the board of Austin Shakespeare.