Title: The Three Evangelists
Author: Fred Vargas
Publisher: Harvill Secker [originally published 1995, this translation 2006]
One morning an ageing ex Opera singer, Sophia Simeonidis, notices a tree planted in her garden and becomes obsessed with how it came to be there. She turns to her neighbours, three obsessive historians (the evangelists of the title) and a disgraced policeman who share a dilapidated house, called The Disgrace by Sophia’s husband, to help her solve the mystery of the tree. When their initial investigations reach a dead end the matter is dropped until Sophia disappears and, once again, the residents of The Disgrace set out to discover what has happened.
This is a book of observations about a group of eccentric but likable characters that borders on the surreal at times. It’s full of odd, seemingly irrelevant but somehow interesting details about the characters and the most insignificant moments or dialogue turn out to be of the utmost importance. It’s the sort of thing Oscar Wilde might have written if he teamed up with Lewis Carroll. The writing is utterly delightful with many phrases and passages that made me smile just because of their structure and cadence which is a credit to Sian Reynolds, the translator, as well as Ms Vargas. The characters, in particular the historians who each have a historical field they specialise in, turn out to be the opposite of the superficial, immature people they might first appear to be and I was enchanted by them all.
The plot definitely plays second fiddle to the meanderings of the three evangelists and their neighbours but, unusually for me, I found I didn’t mind as I was totally captivated by the people and the place. There is definitely a mystery and towards the end it’s quite suspenseful, but it’s not a traditional procedural or noir crime novel. In fact it might not even be a crime novel at all aside from the fact that a crime is assumed to have taken place in it but I’ve given up worrying about labels. Regardless of what kind of book it is I found it charming, unpredictable and quite a treasure.
My rating 4/5
I thought this was a standalone novel but, according to Wikipedia, there are apparently two more in the series that are yet to be translated into English. Alas I can speak only a smattering of French and not nearly well enough to do justice to Vargas’ writing.