Book review: An Uncertain Place by Fred Vargas

Translated by Sian Reynolds. Harvill Secker, 2011.

The latest in the Adamsberg series (now almost caught up with itself in translation) opens in London, with Adamsberg and Danglard attending a European-wide police meeting on crime. Adamsberg, in a reversal of the usual English attitude to the French, has never bothered to learn English so is deliberately remote from the subject matter of the conference, unlike his colleague Danglard, who not only is immersed in it but falls for a woman delegate called “Abstract”. Wandering round London with the main English police representative, Adamsberg and Danglard meet an unusual Lord, who leads them to Highgate cemetery and a gruesome yet eccentric discovery, capturing Adambserg’s interest in a way that the conference has failed to do.
Back in Paris, the team is immediately called out to an extremely horrific murder which Adamsberg attacks with his characteristic lack of forward motion but plenty of intuitive and weird observations and asides. As an example the unarmed suspect, once apprehended, is casually allowed to run away during questioning (by some strange sleight of hand managing to disable two police guards while the interrogators look on, jump over a wall and vanish into the night). Adamsberg is unperturbed, being more interested in the fate of some newborn kittens in the shed in the garden of his old neighbour (among other apparently inconsequential concerns that we know will all turn out to be relevant, somehow).
The preceding couple of paragraphs should provide an idea of the idiosyncracies of this novel. The apparently baroque plot, such as it is, is very obvious, so for the reader it is a question of whether or not one is prepared to be charmed by all the mini-meanderings that take place until all is revealed; whether one is prepared to suspend belief at many of the subsequent bizarre scenes and ruminations (mainly of Adamsberg); and whether one is prepared to put irritation on one side when, as often happens, a scene is described with a crucial element missing, or someone states a fact, is told this is wrong, then later, without any explanation, the fact is then accepted to be true.
Vargas’s characters inhabit a world where there is some external sanity and order, but not in a way that impinges on any of the plot. DNA tests and standard procedure have no place here, as each member of the police team is defined by his or her particular eccentricity or neurosis which is used to contribute, jigsaw-fashion, in a sort of psychotherapeutic approach to the crime as a “patient”. When the whole story is created from all the disparate elements (I can’t really call them clues, but they do add up), Adamsberg knows the complete picture – not that he is necessarily going to share it with anyone.
Vargas has many admirers and I can understand why her books, written with an intelligent originality, are so well regarded. But at heart, they are cold – they represent huge academic games in the author’s mind, rather than being written with passion or conviction. Here, as in previous novels, events are plucked out of Adamsberg’s past as if by a magician, and he remains detached from engagement with his family whom he regards as if they have nothing to do with him. (He has a similar attitude to the past revelations.) If, as a reader, one wants to engage with the author on her own terms, the books, this one included, are rewarding and, if you aren’t squeamish, entertaining. If, however, you are like me and prefer (crime) novels to be rooted in apparent authenticity and reality, with emotional power arising from this framework, they are less appealing.

I thank Karen of Euro Crime for so kindly providing an advance proof of this novel, which has just been shortlisted for the CWA International Dagger 2011.

Fred Vargas is a favourite among many of Euro Crime’s regular reviewers. A chronological list of her books, together with their associated Euro Crime reviews, can be found here.

Other, mainly extremely positive, reviews of this particular novel can be found at: Euro Crime (Karen Meek), The Sunday Independent, The Independent, Crime Scraps, Shade Point, and Shots e-zine.