It’s thursday? Already? What? No. I’m not ready for the weekly mystery blog. Not ready. But i said i would be so here it is. The first of the book reviews. The idea is to talk about stuff you MIGHT not be into – yet. I mean, we’ve all heard of Tana French by now and so forth, so it’s only right to blerb about stuff you may not have. Of course i’m probably not that qualified at finding this stuff. I search for it blindly and am ALWAYS open to suggestions so if you’ve got anything that you think i might be interested in let me know and i’ll take a look. The same rules will apply. If i don’t like something or it’s a little too ‘normal’ chances are i won’t write about it. So please don’t recommend Patterson or Sanford and such.
Fred is French. Just so you know. All of the books of the Commisaire Adamsberg series are translations. I’ve read two of them so far The Chalk Circle Man and this one and i have to say they are – weird. In other places at other times i’ve described them as “what if Amelie was a homicide detective?” and i think that still holds up. Adamsberg is a charming weirdo and he’s well insulated and surrounded by other intriguing weirdos, some of whom have murder on their minds.
In this one Adamsberg isn’t so much at the heart of the book, though. Here the central character is his enigmatic ex, Camille, who finds herself as a small town plumber in a mountain town full of mountain folk tending sheep. She’s surrounded by charming pastoral folk, a foul mouthed shepherdess and her adopted child whom she’s convinced is an African Prince, a grumpy superstitious shepherd with a passion for strong wine, a Canadian documentary filmmaker studying wild wolves. Drop in one werewolf terrorizing the neighborhood and a victim, stir, ferment, see what happens.
Of course this isn’t one of the glut of paranormal mysteries so we don’t believe for one second that there is, in fact, a real werewolf terrorizing the Mercantour. It’s a testament to the languid and dazzling flow of Vargas writing that she somehow convinces us that it just MIGHT be a lycanthrope, even as we laugh at ourselves for being so stupid. Of course it may be that we’ve seen this sort of thing before, too, and have conditioned towards the spontaneous outbreak of lycanthropy in otherwise perfectly good mysteries.
In any case, Vargas keeps her main detective involved from afar, he’s a little busy trying to fend off the murderous attention of a woman so doesn’t quite have time to track down possible werewolves in another district. In stead, the wonderfully bizarre keeps us going down the road throughout most of it and she’s truly a gem to follow. Vargas clearly loves her being enigmatic and somehow, in spite of being central to the story, she manages to keep her distant and yet interesting. We never quite get familiar with her. You might think it would be difficult having a protagonist you’re never allowed to fully identify with but Vargas makes it all a pleasure – like spending time with a marvelous host at a party you know you’ll have to leave.
She is not, however, a detective. Her pursuit of the wolf through the countryside takes the whole thing into a road book – On The Road with idiots, werewolves and murder. Setting off with her two companions to find the murderer and (literally) eviscerate him they bumble amiably through the countryside collecting things they think are clues but aren’t and following leads that go no where.
It’s here that the story does become a little bit of a chore as we’re already aware that Adamsberg must show up at some point and Vargas makes us wait just a little too long. Oh it’s fun. Solimon and Watchee are excellent comic relief even though the reader never really needs relief from anything. They repeatedly deflate any latent idea of buried wisdom that we might feel about old shepherds and their proteges but at times it seemed that that was all their purpose was, to kill time while the reader waits for Adamsberg to get into position.
When he does show up i immediately felt how much i missed him. Maybe that was the point? To get the reader to the point where we’re as relieved to have him along as the characters themselves. Adamsberg is easily the ruling king of this motley band. His style of detection is as charismatic as it is bizarre – almost tranquil and nonchalant. There is literally no other detective in film or literature (that i can think of anyway) who would have been able to stick with the assorted ensemble effectively without losing their minds in the process, though i have to admit it is fun to think of Thomas Magnum trying.
In any case i don’t want to give too much away. Vargas is a fun and engaging writer and i’m always predisposed towards writers who can efficiently use vivid detail to elucidate the unique qualities of their characters. She’s quirky. I like that. And it’s not quirkiness for just the sake of itself – it shows tiny glimpses of deep characters who are comfortable with their own oddities. She uses enough of it to get you to want more. You want to hear the end of Soliman’s strange, rambling stories even if no one else does, you can’t wait for Camille to page through her big catalog of tools like it’s her personal bible.
I can’t say that the ending was any great surprise. It may be just a little overly elaborate for a story who’s greatest charm is it’s unique and unapologetic simplicity. Order is restored. That sort of thing. We’re rewarded with a killer. Yay. About what you’d expect really, but getting there is a lot of fun if you have a little bit of patience and like your characters vividly random.
If you’re a straight up whodunit procedural type and like your characters tough, straight faced (boring) then this probably isn’t for you. But if you have a ken for the weird, the daring, and the interesting then you probably couldn’t do much worse, though i still feel that the ending was a bit of a let down. It reached more than it needed to and you could see it a pretty long way off, but then again i can’t remember the last time the ending of a mystery actually surprised me.