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Fred Vargas, Master of Crime

One of the most popular writers in France today is Fred Vargas, author of over a dozen policiers (crime novels.) Vargas is unusual both for her background and for the style of her novels, which depart from the usual formulas and clichés of crime fiction. They are fun reads and I just love them.

Who is Fred Vargas?

Fred Vargas’s real name is Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau and she is a historian and archaeologist, a world expert on the Black Death of the Middle Ages. She started writing in her mid-thirties and made an immediate splash.

Fred Vargas, écrivain et archéologue• Crédits : Alain Auboiroux – Maxppp

Not only were Vargas’ books a hit in France, but several won the Gold Dagger Award, given annually to the world’s top crime novel. In fact, Vargas is the first author to have won this award for three successive novels! Nearly all have been translated into English.

Fred Vargas is not your usual crime fiction author

What makes her novels unusual? They are extremely well-written and they avoid the formulas common to the genre. Her most famous character, Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, is the antithesis of the classic hard-boiled detective. He is small, soft-spoken, and eschews normal investigative methods. In fact, he is completely incapable of thinking logically (much to the frustration of his team.)

Instead, Adamsberg relies on a remarkable intuition that even he doesn’t understand, piecing together minor and seemingly unrelated details to solve murders. It is this ability that has taken him from a small town in the Pyrenees to one of the top police posts in Paris.

I like that Adamsberg often travels to solve crimes—to Normandy, to Béarn, once even to Canada. These colorful backdrops are part of the fun. And the books aren’t just about Adamsberg—he is surrounded by a kind of misfit team.

A misfit team

There is the ultra-logical Danglard, who dresses like an English dandy; the immense Retancourt, worshipped by the rest of the team (who are also terrified of her); the computer expert Froissy, who is obsessed with food and hides snacks everywhere; and more. And let’s not forget la Boule, an enormously fat cat that spends most of its time on the warm copy machine, constantly interrupting essential paperwork.

Adamsberg also has a complicated relationship with Camille, an artist, and musician, which gives him more depth than the usual crime fiction character.

Besides the Adamsberg novels, Vargas has written several books featuring “the three evangelists”—the moniker is due to their first names. They are oddball young men, each an expert in a different period of European history (classical, medieval, modern) who combine their talents to solve crimes.

Where to start?

If you are interested in trying one of Vargas’ books, I would start with the first Adamsberg novel, The Chalk Circle Man. It’s short, fast-paced, and one of her best (it won an International Dagger award.)

Here’s a teaser:

“When blue chalk circles begin to appear on the pavement in neighborhoods around Paris, Commissaire Adamsberg is alone in thinking that they are far from amusing. As he studies each new circle and the increasingly bizarre objects they contain – empty beer cans, four trombones, a pigeon’s foot, a doll’s head – he senses the cruelty that lies within whoever is responsible. And when a circle is discovered with decidedly less banal contents – a woman with her throat slashed – Adamsberg knows that this is just the beginning.”


If you’re ready to match wits with the Commissaire? Start reading! Share with us in the comments below if you’ve read any Vargas novels?



Image Credits:
– All book images from Amazon
– Vargas image: Wikipedia, Creative Commons License attribution Marcello Casal/ABr



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