Fred Vargas: Digging up the past

The French historian Fred Vargas won international acclaim when she turned to crime fiction. Matthew J Reisz meets her
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The Independent Culture

There are detective novels which tell us about police corruption, prostitution, drug-trafficking and the dark underbelly of urban life. Others tap into far more primal fears. Many of our deepest nightmares - tales of werewolves, forests and the plague - could loosely be called "medieval".

So perhaps it's not surprising that they haunt the books by the archaeologist and medieval historian who, under the pseudonym Fred Vargas, is now one of the stars of French crime fiction, and a bestseller abroad. She is technically an archéozoologue, using animal bones to study medieval eating habits, commercial relations, hunting, husbandry and social structures. She worked on digs for 15 years, joined the prestigious CNRS research centre in 1988 and recently completed a major project on the epidemiology of the Black Death.

Yet back in 1986, when she was still co-director of an archaeological site, she decided she needed to balance the rigours of her professional life with something more enjoyable. "Archaeology is a sort of mythic profession," Fred Vargas explains on a visit to London, "and people think it must be fascinating, which it is in a way. But it's also very scientific and requires lots of facts and figures, statistics and studies - it's quite austere. Even as a student I thought it was a bit incomplete in terms of the emotional aspects of life. I used to play the accordion in order to relax from the job, but I wasn't good enough at music, so I decided to write a detective story for fun."

Her idea of "fun" sounds pretty intense. Unable to sit around doing nothing, she has fallen into a pattern of working 15 hours a day and drafting each novel in exactly 21 days over her summer holidays. She then sometimes leaves the text on one side until her next break from work in December, when she begins a process of re-writing which usually culls every single sentence of the original version.

Vargas claims to do little research, but her professional expertise often echoes through the darker undercurrents of the books. Have Mercy on Us All, her first thriller published in English, features a sort of amateur town-crier who three times a day reads out the messages people have put in his box. Amid the kittens for sale, lovelorn notes and complaints about neighbours, he discovers a series of grim warnings about a forthcoming outbreak of the plague.

"I worked for five years on texts about the plague," Vargas explains, "which was quite heavy - it's not a very amusing subject. So it was a relief to be able to treat it in another way. I didn't include everything I knew because it would have sent readers to sleep. If you read the real [scholarly] book I wrote about the plague, you're asleep in 10 minutes."

In her next book to appear in English, Seeking Whom He May Devour, a werewolf seems to be stalking the French Alps. It also features her wonderfully indirect and intuitive detective, Commissaire Adamsberg. His habitual methods could not be less scientific: "Adamsberg never thought actively, he found it quite sufficient to day-dream and then to sort his catch, like a fisherman scrabbling about clumsily in the bottom of a net."

"I like him," Vargas admits, "but he annoys me - I'm aware that I constructed him to be exactly the opposite of myself. I didn't want him to be speedy and anxious. I like him because he's relaxed and calm and doesn't talk a lot, but sometimes he gets on my nerves because he's so slow and won't use logical analysis."

Her latest book to appear in Britain, The Three Evangelists (translated by Siân Reynolds; Harvill Secker, £12), features a far more sinister corrupt ex-cop called Vandoosler. He gets involved in a murder investigation when the Greek opera singer next door, Sophia Siméonides, discovers a mysterious tree planted overnight in her Paris garden - and fears it may be a warning from a former lover or deranged fan.

Vandoosler shares a house with some out-of-work young historians known as "the Three Evangelists": his nephew Mark; a pre-historian and "great blue-eyed hunter-gatherer" called Mathias; and Lucien, "half-genius and half-idiot", who specialises in the First World War. It is Mark, a medievalist, who eventually proves that archaeology can be as useful as forensics in solving crimes.

Much of the fun comes from the way their specialisms breed rivalries. "Classicists and medievalists were on different staircases and wouldn't mix," Vargas recalls from her student days. "Often archaeologists specialising in antiquity are right-wing politically, while medievalists are on the left."

Vargas admits that Lucien is a comic version of her brother, Stéphane, a leading Great War historian, but believes it is always a disaster when she tries to bring her own life into her books. Like her, Sophia's niece Alexandra is a single mother bringing up a son alone, but the 10 pages about this in the first draft of The Three Evangelists were eventually reduced to two sentences.

"In literature it spoils everything if you try and put your own feelings in directly, as if the meat isn't cooked," she says. "It was a relief to write it, but then I took it all out. Every time I do something biographical, I think it's a failure - one can't be subtle and intelligent when one talks about oneself; one gets cross and the result is bad."

More surprising, perhaps, Vargas seems unable to give more than minor roles to women: "It's very difficult to respect the female characters and not fall into clichés because we have maybe 10 categories - the childish woman, the woman in battle dress, the rude woman, the winner and so on. You don't have categories like that for men, or magazines like the ones which ask if you're this, that or the other type of woman. She adds that "If you say there are 30 men in a café, it has no significance; if it's 30 women, people start asking: 'Where are we - in a gay café or what?' I would like to remove the sexual identification from the word 'women' and treat them like human beings in general, but when I want to talk about people in general I find I am obliged to use men."

Detective fiction, she believes, is not just a recent genre but touches on something deeply human stretching all the way back to Stone Age camp fires: "In Greek stories you have the hero who travels to fight the monster, half-human and half-animal, which is a representation of evil and particularly the dangers lurking within humanity - the Minotaur, the Sphinx and so on. And around it is a sort of labyrinth, so it's very difficult to reach the final battle. In medieval legends, there's exactly the same construction with the symbolic dangers of dragons and black knights and a forest which is just like a labyrinth." For her, "The detective story has the same structure. The murderer is a symbolic representation of the dangers of life and the savage part within man - I think it is a very, very old story. It is necessary for man to represent dangers, identify them and conquer them every day."

Recently, after years of peopling her books with policemen derived largely from crime fiction rather than real life, Vargas came under surveillance herself. She took up the cause of Cesare Battisti, an Italian who had briefly been a member of an armed leftist group in the late 1970s. He was granted asylum in France in 1985 under Mitterrand but convicted in Italy in absentia on the basis of evidence provided by a former associate.

When the Italians demanded Battasti's extradiction, the French government (illegally) agreed and the media embarked on a campaign to blacken his name. All this would probably have passed unnoticed if he hadn't been an established crime writer in France, and hence part of a left-leaning fraternity which rushed to his defence.

Vargas became a leader of the campaign and put together a powerful book about the affair. Battisti is now in hiding, but she continues to oppose his extradiction in the European court. "The police suspect me of knowing where he is, so they listen in on my phone calls and follow me around," she says. "At the beginning it was difficult to live with their presence day and night, but afterwards you get used to it and I sometimes speak to them on my mobile. 'Hello, boys, just have a beer, do your job and let me do mine - trying to save an innocent man.'"

Biography: Fred Vargas

Fred Vargas is a French medieval historian and archaeologist who has a parallel career as a bestselling crime novelist. She adopted the pseudonym from her twin sister, an artist who works as Jo Vargas - after Ava Gardner's character in The Barefoot Contessa. She has published 10 romans policiers, five featuring Commissaire Adamsberg. She now ranks in France's top six bestselling authors. Her crime novels published in English are The Three Evangelists (2006), Seeking Whom He May Devour (2005) and Have Mercy on Us All (2004). She also led the campaign against the extradition of the Italian former activist Cesare Battisti. Fred Vargas's detective fiction is published in 32 languages. Frédérique Audouin-Rouzeau works at the CNRS research centre in Paris; her study of plagues, 'Les chemins de la peste', appeared in 2003.