I don’t have the temperament of a completist. Not for me the obscure early works, the unfinished manuscripts, the lesser-known short stories of the eminent novelist. But I find myself making an exception for Fred Vargas because she is just so much fun. Debout les morts/The Three Evangelists, published in 1995, is one of Vargas‘ earlier mysteries, though it comes after L’homme aux cercles bleus/The Chalk Circle Man, in which police commissioner Jean-Pierre Adamsberg makes his first appearance. It’s clear that Vargas had not yet figured out who her chief protagonist is going to be, since The Three Evangelists ignores Adamsberg in favor of the three out-of-work academics who study, respectively, prehistory (Mathias/Matthew, the “hunter-gatherer”) the Middle Ages (Marc/Mark, the “broke aristocrat”) and World War I (Lucien/Luke, with a tin soldier on his keyring). They occupy a wreck of a house in a quiet neighborhood, each taking an entire floor, layered chronologically in what might have been fatal whimsy in other hands. The top floor is occupied by Marc’s uncle and godfather, an ex-cop with a tarnished reputation.
As one might expect, three reasonably attractive (well, except for Lucien) young men make friends of their female neighbors and thus become involved when former opera star Sophia Siméonidis is deeply disturbed by the appearance in her garden of a young beech tree. When Sophia disappears, the tale takes off. As in The Chalk Circle Man, Vargas concerns herself with research methods. (After all, she has a PhD. in history and published academically as recently as 2007.) Direct observation, archival research, excavation, discussion, even that tricky process, thought, are all brought to bear on the problem. In a wonderful passage near the end of the novel, Marc goes on a walkabout through Paris, coming to grips with ahorrifying conclusion, then returns home: “He had accepted the idea. He had understood. Everything was in order. He knew where Sophia was. He had put the time in.” Other crucial clues that only Vargas could have invented: the quality of the disturbed earth when a trench has been closed up. A spelling error. The rust-mark left by a paper clip on an old newspaper.
It’s true that The Three Evangelists is not the full-blown Vargas I’ve come to adore. She’s still playing with archetypes rather than real characters — Mathias, for instance, the prehistorian, prefers not to wear clothes and speaks very little while Lucien, the only post-industrial historian, feels naked without his tie. But somehow she makes even these slightly schematic figures sympathetic. And if the murderer’s motive seems a little thin, there’s enough action at the end to more or less veil that shortcoming. The truly good news, though, is that a new Vargas is appearing in France on May 18. Mark your calendar!