The translation for this Fred Vargas title is listed on Amazon as An Uncertain Place. Looks like the English edition will be available in May, though not from Penguin, which has been issuing Sian Reynolds’ translations like Wash This Blood Clean from My Hand. As one of Police Commissioner Jean-Pierre Adamsberg’s staff might say, “Mystère.” Also, “Dommage,” which means “too bad.” Because I’ve just read a fabulous murder mystery and want to share my enthusiasm.
Fellow Vargas fans will know that her mysteries flirt with the ancient menaces to civilization: plague, ghosts, werewolves and now, vampires. The novel opens with Adamsberg and his sidekick Adrien Danglard at a conference in London where they are confronted by seventeen shod feet, severed from old cadavers, lined up at Highgate Cemetery. It’s a rousing start for the usual intricate Vargas puzzle, with an indelible visual image and any number of meanings that could be assigned to the phenomenon. But does it have anything to do with the Parisian Criminal Brigade?
The connection doesn’t become clear until later. These Vargas books develop at their own pace and require that we readers emulate Adamsberg’s free-floating approach to cognition. They follow the rules of the traditional mystery — the bad guy is there all along, the red herrings are exposed as distractions — but those elements are worked into a dense network of images, characters, and ideas. The crime that kicks off the investigation in this book is a gruesome killing in which a body is systematically dismantled. One of the cops on Adamsberg’s team seems distracted, makes errors, and soon it seems that Adamsberg himself may fall under suspicion. Enter a level of plot compexity worthy of John LeCarré, where the institution that upholds the law is revealed as deeply corrupt.
Thus Adamsberg’s flight to Serbia has something in it of the return to Eden. One of the reasons these books are so compelling is that the secondary conflict is always between the intuitive and the materialist. Vargas spells it out, demonstrating how it splits the squad room: “Here the antagonism revived with new strength, between the material positivist members of the Brigade, who were deeply disturbed by Adamsberg’s vagaries, and those more conciliatory members who saw no harm in shoveling clouds from time to time.” This divide mirrors the way Vargas has played with the apparently supernatural in some of these mysteries. On his visit to the Serbian village, home of the master vampire, Adamsberg accepts at face value the inhabitants’ beliefs in the vampire and the menace it poses to them. He walks along the Danube, picks up some Serbian, seduces a waitress. Comes close to death.
Vargas‘ finesse is such that both positivists and dreamers can be satisfied with the outcome, but that both would benefit from a little flexibility in their thinking. Meanwhile the tense sidekick Danglard chases romance and loosey-goosey Adamsberg is confronted once again with the troublesome matter of emotional ties. Once again, Vargas inserts a kitten into the story. I am always a sucker for a kitten. So is Adamsberg.