Wednesday, December 21, 2011

NEW STUFF: An Uncertain Place - Fred Vargas

There is no one quite like Fred Vargas in crime fiction today. You have to go back to the "webwork" novels of Harry Stephen Keeler and John Russell Fearn to find any writer who comes close to her unique way of constructing novels that blend the weird, the bizarre and the absurd into a mind-tripping, eye-opening, jaw-dropping phantasmagoria. Luckily with Vargas you also get dreamy readable prose and not convoluted syntax or wacky word-winging as in the case of Keeler or mysteries with transparent solutions as in the case of Fearn. In the Vargas universe everything is truly connected. There is a ubiquity of significance in her books. The absurdities and oddities of life cease to be merely strange and carry a hidden meaning that sometimes borders on the supernatural. She brings the mystery back to the mystery novel on so many levels.

Randomness has no place and there are no coincidences. In a Keeler book, for example, the works of George Barr McCutcheon, a mysterious violin playing thief, and the science of acoustics all come together in the plot of The Mystery of the Fiddling Cracksman. A man eating a bowl of chow mein nearly chokes on a tiny hand made of jade in The Green Jade Hand, but the scene is not there merely to make us laugh it will have some greater importance to the story. Similarly, with Vargas the birth of a kitten is not thrown into the story offhandedly for cuteness factor; it will have repercussions throughout the entire novel. Likewise other events and discussions that seem to be mentioned in passing -- a brief talk about a man who decided to eat his wooden wardrobe piece by piece, the macabre history of Highgate Cemetery including what was discovered when the body of Dante Rossetti's wife was exhumed nine years after her death -- all have later ramifications in this hypnotically addictive book.

The ripple effect begins when Adamsberg who is in England for an international police conference quite by accident stumbles across a bizarre crime. Eighteen pairs of shoes have been found in front of Highgate Cemetery. And the shoes still contain feet. They have all been cut from nine different corpses and none of them are English. The shoes show signs of Eastern European manufacture and many of them are decades old. It appears that the feet have been collected over a period of years. But who on earth has dismembered several dead bodies and placed their feet in front of a cemetery with a past of legendary proportions? What have those feet do to with the horribly mutilated corpse of a reclusive Frenchman whose body quite literally was chopped up to tiny bits? Why are so many variations of a single name continually turning up in the course of the investigation - Plogerstein, Plögener, Plogoff, Plogodrescu.These names become so prevalent that one of the characters coins the term "Plog" as an exclamation denoting significance or surprise.

Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg will face one of the most unusual criminals in his career. He will discover that nearly everything in his life will be related to the solution of the crime. The people he encounters and takes for granted will play major roles. And most importantly he will discover that a long forgotten night in his past will come back to haunt him with a startling revelation. The less said about the wild fantastical plot the better.

And now a word about the oft forgotten yet very important translator. Sian Reynolds' translation is an intricately built, ingenious example of how translation can become a true art. Finding the right word is less important than crafting sentences that retain the original flavor of the author's native language. Vargas' books are intrinsically French and in this case have an added international dimension when Adamsberg must travel to England and later Serbia where he does not speak either language. There are ample opportunities for linguistic wordplay in these new settings. There are amusing scenes with Adamsberg repeatedly mispronouncing the name of a British police officer and his habit of calling the infamous cemetery Higg-gate and in Serbia he goes out of his way to learn a handful of Serbian words to better impress a woman who runs the guest house where he is staying. Finally, there is a policeman on Adamsberg staff who speaks in alexandrines a French verse of 12 syllables which Reynolds has confessed to being one of the most difficult tasks she tried to duplicate in English. For that alone she deserves the awards she has garnered from the CWA.

This is the time of the year when everyone is making lists of the Best of the Year. I can never make one of those lists. But I can tell you that An Uncertain Place is definitely a book I would consider to be included as one of the best of the new books, if not the absolute best, I have read this year. A little masterpiece of a book that is also an enviable work of contemporary fiction. It may not be to everyone's taste judging from a variety of indifferent and confused reactions in other reviews I've come across on other blogs. For me, however, this is pretty damn awesome crime fiction.


  1. I have to agree that I enjoyed Vargas' writing immensely when I read L'HOMME A L'ENVERS (SEEKING WHOM HE MAY DEVOUR). I've somewhat delayed getting back to her because of the atrociously drunken editing of my edition (with bits and pieces of various chapters getting so mixed up it had me doubting my French comprehension skills), and the fact that all three of her books that I own are from the same publisher.

  2. I adore Fred Vargas. I discovered her a few years ago and have read all her books available in English. (Afraid I don't think my high school French is up to her writing skills.)

    I agree that she is a wonderful writer and that her mysteries are truly mysterious and satisfying.

  3. Houellebecq was the last french author who impressed me. I may have to check out this other one.

  4. There is enough in this one by Vargas to keep your attention, Tim. And knowing your tastes in the macabre I think you will like this book.

  5. I have read three books by Vargas, and while not as impressed with the linguistics I can certainly endorse the originality of her books. Having read crime stories for almost fifty years that happens seldom these days and is far more interesting to me than mere style. I supect she is an aquired taste somewhat the way of Gladys Mitchell who also is an original. I regret that I have never read any Keeler or Fearn.

  6. The reviewer on Mystery File said that it's important to read this series in order (of original publication). What do you think?

  7. Well, I have yet to read either keller, Fearn or Vargas but she is definitely going on the TBR pile for next year as your review reminded me a little of the cherished Fredric Brown crossed with Cornell Woolrich - or am I completely off base here?.

    Thanks mate.


  8. Unnamed One -

    Because Vargas' books were not published in English in sequence I have not read them in order. Her first book in the Adamsberg series, THE CHALK CIRCLE MAN, was the fifth book to be published in English as a matter of fact.

    I don't think it's necessary to read the books in order. This book in particular doesn't have much in the way of the back story or continuing relationships and therefroe can easiy be read out of sequence. The first few probably gain a little from reading in order. But those elements of a series rarely interest me anyway. (Louise Penny's "Three Pines" books are one rare exception.) I tend to be interested more in the story being told than the continuing relationships and the lives of the characters.

    Sergio -

    Fredric Brown has a bit in common with her - the outrageous and bizarre events of NIGHT OF THE JABBERWOCK come to mind. And Woolrich's fatalistic plots often loaded with eerie coincidences may too have a bit in common with Vargas. I am just struck how she more than any other contemporary crime writer writes a genuine webwork plot - the definition being a plot with seemingly extraneous threads and unrelated matters that will all come together in the end. And she does it better than the two writers who are best known for it in the crime fiction world.

  9. Oh John, such a wonderful review. "...word-winging..." LOVE that expression!

    I did try one Fred Vargas book (recommended by Kathy) a while back and couldn't get into it. But this one sounds truly amazing.

    I will be reading this in the New Year. No question about it.

    Happy Holidays, kiddo. Hope it's a great Christmas and New Year for you and your family.