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.

15 thoughts on “Book review: An Uncertain Place by Fred Vargas

  1. I think you summed up Vargas very well Maxine with your phrase “intelligent originality”. I find the standard crime fiction novel still very enjoyable, but some authors provide something extra either with their exceptional characters, settings, plots or social commentary.

  2. You’ve done an excellent job of reading my mind Maxine. I’ve only read one and a half of the Adamsberg novels, I enjoyed the first one as a one-off ‘experiment’ but the next one I tried did not grab me much at all. I did enjoy her standalone novel a lot more than the Adamsberg books.

    I’ve ordered this one from the library because it made the CWA shortlist but must admit I’m not really excited to read it and I’m not prepared to spend a lot of time with it – if it doesn’t hook me in I’ll be leaving it aside. There are many popular authors that I don’d ‘get’ so nothing new there 🙂

  3. I thought it was well written compared with a couple of the others in this series I’ve read – but I also noticed some ungrammatical English so I did not mention the translation in my review as one can never know who is to blame for that kind of thing. I agree the standalone was fun (The Three Evangelists) though about 2/3 of the way through I found it frustrating in the same way. I am afraid I am a very literal-minded reader. But we need all sorts!

  4. Maxine – One really does have to take Vargas’ work on its own terms and like Norman, I really like the way you’ve described it as “intelligent originality.” If one takes her work that way, one can enjoy it. I think it’s that unusual quality that made me read and enjoy some of it. But the Adamsberg novels that I have read (haven’t read this one yet, I confess) haven’t struck me as being focused on organised plots and logical progressions. I think I can sum my reaction up this way: Vargas’ work is unusual – definitely not “run of the mill.” On that score I’ve enjoyed some of her books. But her work is not real-world type stories and it’s definitely not for everyone.

  5. I am reading this one next. I enjoyed The Three Evangelists but didn’t love it. I haven’t read enough of her books to say how I like her yet.

  6. I’ve really enjoyed the Vargas novels I’ve read, and I would read her whether or not there was a mystery — I find the writing style and the characters so entertaining. I’ve always been hopeless at figuring out whodunnit — I gave up trying years ago — but I can’t imagine where one would begin in a Vargas novel. I can see how these books wouldn’t stand up if you take your crime seriously.

  7. I read Vargas books because of her originality, creativity and quirkiness — and, it’s defiance of convention and formulas. It does end up that the unusual plots and developments have a factual, rational basis in the solution to the crimes.
    There are so many formulaic and boring mysteries out there in the book world. It is a breath of fresh air to read books that are so original and brilliant, in my opinion.
    I have read so many police procedurals and conventional mysteries in my decades of reading that the unusualness of Vargas’ writing and characters holds my interest throughout. Whatever I question is explained later on in the book.
    I smile, I laugh and I ponder her books and quirky characters. I’m still grinning over a scene in Wash This Blood From my Hands, which no other author could have written … I read it two years ago. I’ll go wherever this brilliant author takes me — however, I realize it’s all a matter of reading taste. And we all differ on that, and it’s good.

  8. Isabella, I agree that she’s a very original and interesting author. I think you have to be predisposed to like her style, though, and it isn’t one that I am all that keen on at the moment, though I might have been at other stages of my life eg when I read a lot of magical realism.
    Kathy, Wash this Blood from my Hands is one I haven’t read, and several people have told me how good that one is (including a doctor at my GP surgery once!). It also won the dagger I believe (from memory). Perhaps I’ll give that one a try if I try another Vargas. I certainly agree that there are far too many formulaic crime novels out there (and novels in general), the challenge is trying to find those that aren’t.

  9. I liked The Three Evangelists and This Night’s Foul Work, which has a medieval clue and a police officer who speaks in 12-syllable Alexandrine verse — that is fun — although I do get something out of all of Vargas’ books, including laughs, when I think: “How did she go there”? “How did she figure this out about that”? Or “What?”
    My view is although I like legal thrillers and good police procedurals (Harry Bosch), good detective stories, Nordic noir, and other genres, Vargas is a brilliant writer. (And, yes, I did learn a bit about the bubonic plague and poor people’s reaction to it from reading a book by her; that is a specialty of hers. And there aren’t too many women who specialize in things like that.)

  10. Very true, Kathy. Perhaps you would like Dinosaur Feather which I am just reading, written by a woman and with (what seems to be) a woman protag….a PhD student working on bird/dinosaur evolution, described in great detail. The book is out in the UK next month (Quercus).

  11. Dinosaur Feather sounds fascinating. I’ll add it to my TBR list. Studying evolution is a neverending task, as more and more is discovered and written about, even in fiction. Readers are bound to learn something from this book.

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