An Uncertain Place, By Fred Vargas (trs Sian Reynolds)

A detective with his head in the clouds

Reviewed,Christian House
Sunday 24 April 2011 00:00

If Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, the elliptical, skewed detective in Fred Vargas's novels, were writing this review, he would take an unlikely, counter-intuitive approach. First of all, he'd forget the plot.

Then he'd focus on characters that don't appear in the book. And he'd discuss the weather more than he would the killing at hand. It is this very method, one that draws the reader into its surreal atmosphere and tilted perspectives, that makes Vargas the most exciting, addictive and inventive purveyor of classy crime fiction currently pounding the publishing beat.

At the opening of An Uncertain Place, Adamsberg and the beleaguered, alcoholic Commandant Danglard, are on a jolly to London for a Scotland Yard seminar. This allows for some nice cross-channel cultural banter, especially as Adamsberg speaks no English and only half listens to translations. DCI Radstock, his British counterpart, sums him up with a mixture of curiosity and concern: "This French commissaire seemed to go around in a peaceful state of being only half awake. One wondered whether even his profession engaged his attention."

Radstock takes the Gallic pair on a tip-off to Highgate Cemetery. Outside the gates sits a pile of shoes with feet still occupying them. Adamsberg considers the "Higg Gate" affair as an Anglo oddity to be ignored. That is, until an even more gruesome case back in Paris is potentially linked. An elderly legal journalist is found mashed up in his suburban house. There's no body to speak of. Just pulp. The ensuing investigation travels between Austria, Germany and Serbia, while coming a little too close to home for Adamsberg.

Vargas has created an idiosyncratic sleuth who almost rivals Sherlock Holmes in his mesmerising nuttiness. "The complex threads of other people's lives did not escape the notice of Adamsberg, even if those threads were whispers, minute sensations, puffs of air." He is, by his own admission, "a cloud shoveller". Danglard is his boozy, moody foil. An intellectual support to counter the whims of his boss, he is a "complex network of infinite and encyclopedic knowledge" with an eye for the vin blanc.

Vargas's Adamsberg series has so far won three International Dagger Awards from the Crime Writers Association. An Uncertain Place should add another to the shelf. It is a highly entertaining policier but more importantly, as with Conan Doyle, the wacky world Vargas shapes is oddly reassuring: a great remedy to a grey day.

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