Dog Will Have His Day by Fred Vargas, book review: A bizarre crime tale with bite


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The Independent Culture

Another of Fred Vargas' bizarre tales hits our shelves: in this one, we are deprived of debonair Commissaire Adamsberg, but his cop-shop in the 5th arrondissement is still open for business, and into it walks a man carrying a piece of dog shit from the street.

Untouched by zealous cleaners, this particular item contains more than the remains of ordinary doggy-chews, to wit, a fragment of human bone. It has been spotted by the acute perception of Louis Kehlweiler, one of Vargas's louche and unfastidious Parisians, an intellectual who conducts somewhat one-sided dialectical discussions with the pet toad kept in his pocket. Kehlweiler's three former house-mates, known as "The Evangelists" in previous Vargas intrigues, include a specialist in prehistoric bones. There is nothing prehistoric about the doggy bone. The specialist pronounces it a nicely fresh big toe.

Along with the elderly and bad-tempered Marthe, Louis keeps watch over his patch of Paris, where they have mentally numbered the park benches as part of their system. A vigil of dog-walkers, with careful note of all befoulments, allows identification of Ringo, a pit bull as the toe-chewer, and Kehlweiler is soon en route to the owner's home in a small Breton town, a richly rewarding experience. Vargas has as loving and sharp an eye for provincial French eccentrics as Simenon, and Kehlweiler finds he has something in common with the sailors who go out into the Atlantic: he, too, is an intellectual deep-sea fisherman.

Our unconventional hero soon discovers that the corpse of an old lady minus a big toe has been found on the beach, and poor Ringo, whose innocent act in a Paris park has led his owners to become suspects, comes to a sad end. But there is much more action and the resultant chase leads Kehlweiler into the home of a collector of ancient typewriters who is also a creator of vast and pointless printing machines, including a rarity created especially for soldiers blinded during the First World War.

Another Evangelist assisting Kehlweiler discovers that he has to come out of his obsession with medieval manuscripts and investigate the 20th century, leading into the Second World War, where a Nazi atrocity reveals to Kehlweiler, the object of much prejudice on account of his German name, a profound explanation of events in his own personal history.

Vargas is an addictive writer whose surreal touches create a curiously solid world. Her occasional whimsy somehow turns into comment both trenchant and funny: when one of Kehlweiler's Evangelists asks an automatic answering machine, "Does God Exist?", "Rephrase the question" comes the reply.