Fred Vargas’ novels are sold as crime fiction, and she has done well for herself under that label, winning three International Dagger Awards for best translated crime novel from the Crime Writers’ Association in Great Britain and topping best-seller lists in several European countries. But her books feel like fantasy, too, and, no, that does not mean sorcerers, dragons, or fair maidens.
Rather, Vargas manages the more difficult task of creating worlds that closely resemble the real one, except that beliefs, tales, apparitions, even professions, from the Middle Ages fit in seamlessly. (No accident there; Vargas is a historian and archaeologist of the Middle Ages when she’s not writing crime novels.) It helps, too, that in Vargas’ world, the prodigious is part of the everyday, whether in the form of the huge police lieutenant Violette Retancourt, or, in “The Ghost Riders of Ordebec,” in the form of three village brothers, one of whom is convinced his bones are made of brittle clay, another born with six fingers on each hand, the third who speaks in reverse, ekiL siht.
These prodigies and their fellow characters get up to: A string of deaths in a Normandy village. The murder of an industrialist in Paris. An escape to North Africa. Rehabilitation of a sadistically wounded pigeon and the tracking down of the person who tormented it. The murder of a woman by an unconventional method perpetrated by her unconventional husband. Vargas, in fact, cites Ed McBain in a 2011 interview as a predecessor in writing crime stories with multiple, simultaneous story lines that never intersect.
Here, in Vargas’ seventh novel about the distracted, Zen-like Parisian police commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, the Middle Ages intrude on the modern world and the village on the big city in the form of a timid older woman who travels to Paris to buttonhole Adamsberg about a disappearance attributed to a thousand-year-old band of legendary marauding ghosts in Normandy.
Adamsberg, impatient with the woman’s inability to get to the point, brushes her off at first, but eventually winds up in her village, to be joined by his staff working with the locals on the case. (Police in France are organized largely on national lines, which makes such jurisdiction-jumping more plausible than it would be in the United States.)
In Normandy, Vargas first pits Adamsberg against and then has him collaborate with a police captain almost as unconventional as he is, a nice twist on the old crime-fiction trope of the smalltown cop who resents his opposite number from the big city. She gives us the urban-rural clash, the life of rural French gentry and of those sunk low, the contrast between Adamsberg and his unhappy, hyperanalytical associate Danglard.
We get Danglard vs. his colleague Veyrenc, whom Danglard resents and belittles until Veyrenc rescues him from the path of a speeding train by flattening him under it, and we get a humorous, touching process of mutual discovery involving Adamsberg and his recently discovered son.
For good measure, Vargas offers a sympathetic, nonshrill view of a young Muslim man under suspicion by French authorities. This book is as chockfull of teeming life as the Bayeux Tapestry, and suffice it to say that not all the marginal characters turn out as one might expect.
In the end, Vargas’ choice of killer in the central plot seemed somewhat arbitrary to me. But it’s a reflection of the well-tempered plot symphony that is the rest of the novel that this hardly mattered.
In the same interview where Vargas talked about her admiration of McBain, she acknowledged a tendency to slip politics into her fiction, though recalling a statement by Stendhal that politics is a stone around literature’s neck. “Obviously,” she admitted, “I am not Stendhal.”
The political commentary in “The Ghost Riders of Ordebec” is sparing and, in one case, telling about French history. Remarks about the shielding of a powerful industrialist’s son are acid-tipped, but more interesting, at least to this non-French reader, was Algeria’s role in the story. That former colony’s bloody history with France, and the continuing struggles of France’s large Algerian population intrude, much the way the Vietnam War might have made its presence felt a few years ago in an otherwise nonpolitical American story. So, read Vargas, and you just may learn something about her country’s dark underside.