An Uncertain Place, By Fred Vargas, trans. Siân Reynolds

Reviewed,Jane Jakeman
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:12

In Fred Vargas's new mystery, that quintessentially French policeman, Commisssaire Adamsberg, is taken way out of his comfort zone to London, where he speaks not a word of the language. Fortunately, he is accompanied by his Anglophile tweed-clad colleague, Commandant Danglard. It should be a routine visit to a conference, but Adamsberg has a disturbing effect everywhere he goes. This particular trip mysteriously features 17-year-old shoes found in a pile in "Higg-gate" cemetery. With severed feet inside them

Safely back in Paris, amid the comfort of old colleagues such as Lieutenant Mercadet, who suffers from narcolepsy but fortunately in a mild form, Adamsberg faces a much less whimsical case. A rich old man has not only been murdered, but so comprehensively butchered that his body seems to have exploded into fragments. Yet the scattering of body parts does not seem random but purposeful.

There has been a similar death in Austria and the killer is dubbed the Zerquetscher, the Crusher. On the trail of the few clues collected from the victim's luxurious mansion, Adamsberg comes face to face with the Zerquetscher (by now known as Zerk), who claims to be Adamsberg's long-lost progeny.

Suspicion of murder falls on the dead man's son and then on the gardener who has been left a big inheritance. But the victim's doctor, a mysterious osteopath with seemingly magic fingers, enters the plot and turns out to have some very strange folkloric connections.

Problems mount up at squad headquarters, adding to Vargas's usual parade of satisfyingly weird characters. The normally efficient Inspector Mordent is distracted by the case of his teenage daughter, currently eating dog-food in a squat with hippies, and Danglard is still working obsessively on the Higg-gate feet case.

Eventually, a conjoined trail of pursuit leads through circuitous routes to a village on the Romanian frontier, whence the dead man's family originated. Here Vargas lets herself go in a riot of vampiric complexities: her delights in plot and language are dolphin-like, leaping with pleasure at obscure Cyrillic messages, tracing Danubian family history and sanguinary lore. There is, it seems, an alternative way of stopping a vampire from wandering abroad...

Soon our Commissaire gets caught in the irresistible trappings of this case, commits a near-fatal error - that of messing about with a vampire's tombstone - and gets into one of the most dangerous situations in the whole Vargas canon. Captured, tied up and sealed alive in a tomb, there seems little hope for him. Let us say only that, as we cheer the ending of this wonderfully intricate and Gothic work, we can look forward to more Adamsberg.

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