I was at Powells the other day discussing great mystery writers with one of their employees who recommended Pierre Lemaitre. I checked, I have Camille in my queue to read soon. Since I was in the middle of A Climate of Fear, I urged her to check out Fred Vargas’s mystery series, though I warned her they are surreal. Now that I have finished A Climate of Fear, I am assured that they remain surreal, a strange blend of comic and noir with absolutely no procedural discipline.
This time it is not Commissaire Adamsberg sniffing out a mystery no one else perceives. The nose goes to another commissaire in another arrondissement who suspected a suicide was really a murder and a concerned citizen mailing a letter she picked up off the street that sparked his interest, but once Adamsberg was on the scent, he was not stopping. He soon discovered that there were other victims, also killed in ways that suggested suicide or accident and that the victims were connected in multiple ways.
Some ten years ago, two travelers died on a trip to Iceland. The official story is they froze to death, but Adamsberg suspects there is more to the mystery than that. At least two of the recent victims were on that trip. Could someone be killing the survivors? Nonetheless the statute of limitations has run out on those deaths, if they are murders. A more contemporary connection is discovered, they also attended the Association for the Study of the Writings of Maximilien Robespierre, a historical reenactment society. Iceland gives him a suspect list of nine, seven unknown. The Robespierre Society gives him a suspect list of seven hundred, also anonymous, but at least he can go see them in historical costume.
I enjoyed this most recent Adamsberg mystery more than the last two. In The Ghost Riders of Ordebec they seemed incredibly obtuse. I knew who the murderer was far too early and was incredibly frustrated that the usually intuitive Adamsberg was dense as a stone. Adamsberg’s uncanny intuition that allows him to make connections is back.
Nonetheless, the series is showing some signs of age with the repetition of quirks from past stories, the dangerous step in the station, the cat, the neighbor pissing on a tree, and the many individual quirks of the officers. This is a common failing of series authors. It feels as though they have an index card for each character with some defining characteristics and when that character pops up in the story, those tics are mentioned more or less verbatim. The problem is that people grow and change. More importantly, their colleagues habituate to their quirks, so when it is noted with equal importance in every book, it’s false. By book eight, Adamsberg will not be noting the same things about people as he did in the first. This is a small thing and Vargas is not alone–nearly every series author does this. Perhaps readers like the familiarity and I am just a weirdo who wants to see secondary characters grow and flourish.
Vargas did allow some character growth. I appreciated that Danglard stepped more outside his encyclopedic box, resisting Adamsberg and getting a small taste for power. Sadly, this was not a wise choice and I am afraid he might be back in the box in the future. Danglard is very much a useful character in that he knows everything. He is not in the least likely, but I don’t care. The point of Danglard and many of the other characters is they are representative of different ways of thinking. There are the disciplined proceduralists, the information gleaners, the talkers, the auditory, the visual, and the intuitive. Their success comes from the best use of their many ways of thinking.
As a mystery, A Climate of Fear is fair. The clues are there for us. The actual killer was in my list of suspects, but I was not able to winnow it down to the right one before Adamsberg, even though I should have because, as he told his colleagues, all the information was there for them and me to draw on.
Commissaire Adamsberg Series
- The Chalk Circle Man
- Seeking Whom He May Devour
- Have Mercy On Us All
- Wash This Blood Clean from My Hand
- This Night’s Foul Work
- An Uncertain Place
- The Ghost Riders of Ordebec
- A Climate of Fear
The Three Evangelists Series
- The Three Evangelists
- Dog Will Have His Day
- The Accordionist (not yet in English)