Fred Vargas, “L’Armee furieuse”

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.

Peter Nicolai Arbo's Asgardreien, 1872. This is the general idea of the Furious Army.

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?

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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12 Responses to Fred Vargas, “L’Armee furieuse”

  1. When planning what to load onto my Kindle for this summer trip, I scoured your blog — every time I came across an author, I checked it out here before committing. Anyway, after much research, I thought ‘Fred Vargas — that’s who I have to load onto the kindle in French….’ But as you probably already know, ça n’existe pas. Guess I’ll wait to get to France to load up with hard copies! In the meantime, thank you for sparing me a number of bad choices… don’t ask what they were, I don’t remember. Just know that, while you may be keeping this blog the better to digest what you read, you are also performing a valuable public service! Thanks!

  2. carolwallace says:

    And thank you, dear. Oh, and on Vargas? Start with “Pars vite, reviens tard.” It’s the make-or-break book for her. Amuse-toi bien!

  3. kathy d. says:

    Fred Vargas is a genius. Agreed. Her unconventional plots, bizarre murder methods, quirky characters — and more — are not like anything one will get in any other crime fiction series. And that’s the beauty of the books.
    There seems to be a big divide over her books, of which I’ve recently become aware. Either people love them, appreciate them or they don’t. The latter grouping doesn’t like the very quirkiness that drives her fans to read the books.
    Some think that the weird events, supernatural and paranormal phenomena don’t have a scientific basis, or that not all is explained, that not all is scientific.
    I think that Vargas is fascinated by myths, folklore and superstition as to how people explain events that they don’t understand or that have been handed down through generations.
    And she eventually does explain reasons logically, although she recognizes that many people hang on to “strange” explanations that they’ve been told or think up themselves.
    And she is fascinated by human behavior and how people can do very strange things, and she examines why.
    As I sit and read An Uncertain Place I marvel at Vargas’ thinking,.
    I also laugh as I know she has a wicked sense of humor and much in human behavior amuses her. And she serves up dollops of wit in her inimitable style.

  4. carolwallace says:

    Kathy, I’m glad you brought up the sense of humor because that is an important part of Vargas’ charm. And another point is the way the settings mirror the plot line: the fact that “Have Mercy on Us All” starts with a town crier and takes place in a crowded urban setting just heightens the atmosphere. These books are consistently so satisfying on so many levels.

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  7. susie q says:

    Just found your blog. I am a mature PhD student coming to the later stages of my thesis about the singularity of FV’s work. Do you have an academic interest in her work, or can you still enjoy it (as I do fortunately) for all the amzing things she does on the wild journeys she takes readers on?

    • carolwallace says:

      Oh, Sue! To be writing on FV! I am green, GREEN with envy, because there is so much there. I really think she is a wizard. Would you consider sharing any of your writing with me? I’d love to see what you have to say, I’m sure it would further enrich my reading. I am not an academic: I got an M.A. at age 51, but in art history, and I’m a novelist. My reading of FV is purely recreational. And rather awe-struck! Good luck with your work on her!

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