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Review: The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, By Fred Vargas

At home with the existential detective

There are, it seems, two types of people: those who have discovered the quirky bliss of Fred Vargas's novels and those who don't know a good thing when they see it on the shelf. For two decades, Vargas has detailed the peculiar investigations of her thoroughly quixotic French detective Commissaire Adamsberg, and in the process fed the habit of a legion of Gallic crime junkies.

Her latest finds "le cop" back in his natural habitat, which doesn't mean his Seine-side headquarters but rather the murky backwaters of Normandy. He fits in perfectly among a provincial cast of obscure French aristocrats, octogenarian enchantresses and a motley bunch of larcenous locals.

When a petite woman travels down from the small town of Ordebec in the Calvados department, she brings with her a tale of mythical murder. A local hunter has disappeared in her commune; an event pre-empted by the visitation of "the Furious Army". This horde of phantoms from the Middle Ages searches out those with evil secrets. When a victim is seen in their spectral clutches, the prey is generally found slaughtered in some gruesome manner.

"This ancient cavalcade causing havoc in the countryside is damaged. The horses and their riders have no flesh," explains Adamsberg's wine-fuelled assistant, Commandant Danglard. "It's an army of the dead." The Commissaire is not convinced. He heads north. "On the hill overlooking Ordebec, Adamsberg found a wall in the sun, and sat down on it cross-legged. He took his shoes and socks off, and gazed at the pale green rolling hills." This is not John Grisham.

As ever, Adamsberg's personal life is a depressed soufflé. In An Uncertain Truth, the previous book in the series, he was introduced to Zerk, a grown up son he was unaware of. Fatherhood does not sit easily on an existentialist's shoulders, but his unease becomes an amusing refrain when Adamsberg recruits Zerk to the case at hand. Vargas manages to win readers over to the sheer surrealism of her tales by anchoring them to universal themes of friendship and loyalty.

She also possesses a smooth celluloid style which here tracks from a dark-humoured Hitchcockian opening in Paris to a shadowy Norman woodland that could have been framed by Tim Burton. For those who haven't picked Vargas off the shelf, I highly recommend sitting on a wall with Adamsberg this spring.