I’m really not the right person to be reviewing Fred Vargas’ work, so don’t expect a rating at the end of this post. I read and enjoyed her standalone novel (The Three Evangelists) as a one-off oddity rather than as an example of something I’d willingly read more of and, for me, a little of Commissaire Adamsberg and friends (who appear in her well-known series) goes a very long way. I’ve read one and a half of the books in this series up to now and I wouldn’t have bothered with this one at all if it weren’t for the fact it is nominated for this year’s International Dagger award. The thing is I can’t (or won’t) wrap my literal, logical mind around the fantasy and paranormal plot elements that Vargas is so enamoured of.
An Uncertain Place is the fifth book (in English translation) to feature the legendary Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg of the Serious Crimes Squad in Paris. In this outing he and his Anglophile offsider Danglard are in London for a conference when they happen upon a gruesome scene: nine pairs of boots are discovered outside Highgate cemetery with feet still in them. Ugh. Upon their return to Paris they soon become embroiled in the case of the murder of a retired journalist, whose body has been chopped and smashed into dozens of pieces in his rural home. Via the very opposite of anything approaching actual police work, the case is ‘investigated’ in the usual haphazard way of this crew (whose individual character flaws and neuroses are all well-understood and accounted for by team mates) and, eventually, a connection is made to a family of vampires.
Of course I can’t be sure that I haven’t looked for other things not to like about Vargas’ work simply because I’m not a fan of the kind of myths and legends that she incorporates into her work but even if that is the case I can’t help having found other things not to my liking. Reading this was, for me, on par with watching a David Lynch movie or the TV show Lost: the enjoyment is meant to be obtained from the intellectual games that are played along the way and one is, I presume, meant to turn a blind eye to anything ridiculous or impossible and I struggle to do this. I can see the cleverness of the linguistic games and even enjoyed things like the way the news account of the man who ate an aeroplane was woven into every aspect of this story. But these games don’t make up for the fact that even the non-fantasy elements of the story are completely unbelievable. In the end there is a total absence of suspense in a book in which any corner can be gotten out of by inventing something that wasn’t there a second ago and couldn’t possibly occur in the real world. At one point in this story for example Adamsberg gets himself into a real pickle far away from his home town and it read to me as if the author hadn’t given a moment’s thought as to how she would get him out of it (there was never any doubt that she would) so she reverse-engineered a character into the spot to save the day. It never really rang true for me but I think as a reader I was meant to be so mesmerised by the verbal jousting between the players that I wouldn’t question the fact it really couldn’t have happened that way at all.
I don’t find Adamsberg or any of his colleagues remotely engaging either: they’re just a mass of quirks and oddities, not real people that you get to know and care about over time. For me there comes a point at which it isn’t amusing (or charming or whatever it is meant to be) that the man supposedly in charge of such an important team is such an obtuse fool he wears two watches that are both inaccurate. It’s just stupid.
In the same way that I finally admitted publicly a few years ago that I would never finish The Lord of the Rings despite having started it several times, I’m comfortable with the fact that Vargas’ writing is not for me, regardless of how many award shortlists she appears on in the future. I wish her fans many happy hours of reading ahead, I’ll be reading something (anything) else.
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It is one of 7 shortlisted titles for the 2011 CWA International Dagger Award.