Fred Vargas does it again. I’ve written pretty frequently about the challenges of keeping a mystery series fresh. There’s a lot to juggle: the setting, the sidekicks, the detective’s emotional development, amorous relationships if any. Some writers clearly tire of the gig, and some manage to stick with it for an improbable span (let’s all raise a glass to the indomitable Sue Grafton). But I can’t think of any mystery writer who started with a template as demanding as that of Fred Vargas. It’s not enough that her Commissioner J. P. Adamsberg novels feature the infuriating, intuitive police commissioner and his linear polymath colleague, Brigadier Adrien Danglard. This dichotomy has always let Vargas use her novels as a way to think about epistemology — which, as one of you brilliant readers has pointed out, is really always the subject of a mystery novel. Who knows what, and how do they know it?
But Vargas — who is a very smart gal — ups the ante by linking her crimes with … let’s call it unreason. Each of the Adamsberg books includes a plot line about something ancient, creepy, and in some cases paranormal. We have plague. Werewolves. A ghost with a trident. A magic potion. Each time Adamsberg has managed to solve the earthly crime, finding a conventional criminal without entirely dismissing the possibility of these weird phenomena. And in L’Armée furieuse, our author follows suit.
L’armée furieuse is a ghastly apparition seen in a Norman village. Danglard, naturally, informs Adamsberg all about it (he’s useful, Danglard: a walking, talking provider of exposition). It’s a northern European phenomenon of a mounted undead warrior, hauling with him several future victims, howling and wailing. The victims, once seen and identified, always die violently. Not everyone has the privilege of seeing the Furious Army, or the Wild Hunt; it’s a kind of second sight. And if you do see it, you are obligated to warn the potential victims to give them a chance to escape.
The unfortunate seer in this case is Lina Vendermot, the lushly sexy sister in a remarkably peculiar family. They are all brilliant but Hippolyte talks backward, Martin eats nothing but insects and Antoine believes he is made of clay. Vargas pulls some strings to get Adamsberg assigned to the case — plausibly enough, I suppose. The local police commandant, the count, the Parisian case of the murdered industrialist…. like that. I don’t have to tell you that Adamsberg figures it all out.
Meanwhile Vargas keeps slipping in sentences like this: “If there was one thing Danglard disapproved of most about Adamsberg, it was the way he took sensations to be proven facts. Adamsberg retorted that sensations were facts, material elements that had as much value as laboratory analysis. That the brain was the most enormous of laboratories, perfectly capable of sorting and analyzing the given data, such as a look, and extracting reliable results from it.” Which is of course what we all do when we read mysteries, right?