A willingness to take huge risks is characteristic of modern French crime fiction. Invigoratingly, French writers break the pretence of naturalistic atmosphere in which British crime writing is normally grounded. Our police-story staples – grimy station, envious colleagues, problems with sex and booze – create a narrow school of fiction, with the phony complicity of realism that unites writers and reader.
In France, Pierre Magnan and Jean-Christophe Grangé both hurtle their hero-detectives into a larger imaginative world. But the supreme exponent of this grand-picaresque style is Fred Vargas. Her Commissaire Adamsberg is a magnetic officer who leads a rich intellectual and sexual life, and is beloved by his team. What a baroque collection they are! Commandant Danglard, with his bottles of wine stashed in the police-station basement; the narcoleptic Mercolet; the statuesque Lieutenant Violette Retancourt and, in this latest tale, Lieutenant Veyrenc, known as the New Recruit, despite his 12 years' service.
Veyrenc has the habit of speaking in Racinian rhyming couplets, one of many traits that bring him into conflict with his Corneille-quoting boss. (Siâ*Reynolds's subtle translation includes elegant passages from the dramatists.) Furthermore, Veyrenc falls in love with Adamsberg's adored Camille, and comes from the same mountainous region of Pau, rife with ancient grudges.
The team must solve several mysteries. Two men have been discovered with their throats cut. A nurse who has serially murdered patients escapes from confinement; she is a dissociator, a dangerous form of psychopath. Burials of young women have been disturbed, with a grey shape seen flitting round the graveyards. In Normandy, two stags have been killed and their hearts cut out. Meanwhile, Danglard has found a nasty 17th-century potion for eternal life, which someone is trying to re-create.
Fast-moving unravellings take Adamsberg to the cemeteries of Paris and Normandy forests. He finally resolves, not only the crimes, but an ugly enmity from his childhood. In Vargas's books, no matter how extravagant the tale, rationality is at work. I have one quarrel: the nurse polishes the soles of her shoes, seen as an indication of psychological disturbance. An old soldier tells me that in the days of leather-soled boots, soldiers had to polish the soles and present them for inspection. Collective insanity perhaps?
Harvill Secker, £12.99. Order for £11.69 (free p&p) on 08700 798 897
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