Authors of murder mysteries have to keep a lot of balls in the air, and I’ve complained frequently here about disappointments in the genre. Dans les bois éternels (translated as This Night’s Foul Work) is not one of them. Once again, Fred Vargas demonstrates that there is nothing intellectually contemptible about writing entertaining fiction.
I will admit that I didn’t feel quite the same exhilaration this time as I did reading Pars vite et reviens tard. There’s something exceptionally thrilling about discovering a new writer and becoming acquainted with the detective and the team. But one thing Vargas did very well with the first Commissaire Adamsberg novel was create a large enough footprint for herself so that she had ample room to maneuver in successive novels. (Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire novels would be the contrasting case — Walt is less entertaining off his own turf.) And part of Vargas‘ cleverness was the way she made Adamsberg an intuitive, unconventional thinker, difficult to pin down, constitutionally off the grid. So in this book, when Adamsberg ends up in a bar in Normandy, toting a pair of stag horns home in his small European car, you can’t see how the dead stag is going to line up with the mysterious killing of two ne’er-do-wells in northern Paris. This could merely be one of those vague Adamsberg moments, but it’s not.
Actually, one of the plot techniques I really admired here was Vargas‘ ability to shift the terms of the conflict. In the early portions of the book — and one of the pleasures here is the leisurely way it all plays out — Adamsberg and his amiable crew are up against another branch of the police. Sure, they’ve got these two bodies and they want to find the killer but the real tension concerns whether or not they will be able to keep the case. Adamsberg suspects this is not merely a random drug killing and wants more time to investigate. Not until a hundred or so pages in do we identify an actual potential murderer.
Vargas also does well with secondary conflict. Adamsberg is a complicated guy with a difficult past. This book puts a new man on his staff, one who turns out to challenge Adamsberg on every level. And, because the logic of the murder mystery demands it, this conflict becomes part of the central puzzle as well.
Finally, the secondary characters continue to entertain. Adamsberg the goofy relies on Danglard the anxious polymath. The big-boned Violette Retancourt’s erotic spell over her colleagues endures. And the enormous timid cat La Boule plays a significant role. That part was a little bit cutesy for me, but I loved Vargas‘ character summary of the beast: “… the cat was incapable of managing alone, totally devoid of that slightly scornful autonomy that makes up the grandeur of the feline.” That kind of writing, that kind of perception, allied with clever plotting and a French setting makes a nearly ideal read for me.