This Night's Foul Work by Fred Vargas

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This Night's Foul Work by Fred Vargas

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A mysterious and slightly mystical thriller, with ghostly goings on sparked off by all manner of corpses – human and otherwise. Possibly not to all tastes, but I would certainly recommend the paperback as worth investing in.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: February 2008
Publisher: Harvill Secker
ISBN: 978-1846551864

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Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg has a lot on his mind, and plate, at the start of this thriller. He would like to have a gentle consideration of a pair of corpses that have been found and are on his slab. With identical causes of death, he knows there's something for his serious crime unit to work on, but colleagues over in narcotics are insisting they're their concern.

There's the fact that a New Recruit has been posted to his ex-wife as a bodyguard, for reasons that a previous novel would explain, although thankfully this is self-contained enough. There's the fact that visiting said ex results in him being 'borrowed' by some Normandy natives to investigate a stag that has been, well not hunted so much as violated. There's the fact he would also like to take to bed the pathologist who is reasoning his two dead men were killed by a short woman.

There's the experience of a long career in the force, and that – which includes a few cases that might or might not have been successfully concluded – plus his very nature, leave a peculiar air about the world – one that allows for a nicely peculiar air to the narration. Adamsberg is a typically atypical policeman – taken to drifting conversation, idling in an amble from one subject to another, circuiting the truth to get to it quicker. He accepts his lot in such a calm way that when he moves house and his new neighbour says his new home is haunted by a killer nun, he can only accede that the shade of those crimes is in the air around him, affecting everything he is in the middle of solving.

He's not alone in being a bit quirky – other people speak in verse, others rely on proverbs or alcohol. There is also a great bit of detail regarding Swedish bar stools. And while all this sounds ridiculous in a skeleton such as I am providing, the whole novel gels supremely well. This is a comedic thriller, but not a comic thriller – if you see what I mean.

I was certainly left appreciating the narrative voice – not Adamsberg's own first-person one, but one that still gets very close to his character. The narration is as quiet as Adamsberg lying on his bed with his baby on his stomach, as droll as when Adamsberg chooses a history of rural architecture for bedtime reading for said baby, as whimsical as Adamsberg is himself when witnessing the various relationships that are around him at work (with great debate given to the New Recruit's looks, and everyone seemingly interested in one key colleague – including the office cat).

The large cast is handled well, with very simply rounded descriptions where relevant. It is this, perhaps, more than the thriller plot, that requires the close reading, but the narrative pace and the conglomeration of oddities and details make for a high level of entertainment and mystery.

I don't know how much one could put this down to the book being French, or being written by a slightly more mature author with a more mature hero, but it is certainly evident and definitely welcome. If this is being flagged as a typically French, or Parisian, thriller elsewhere, then I feel that is in error – the Gallic charm may be there but on the whole, there is nothing to mark this out as uniquely, exotically French.

On reflection, I can see this thriller dividing people – for some the almost zen-like way Adamsberg completes his missions (focussing on locating gravel in a Parisian café, for example) will seem unlikely and unrealistic. Putting aside some of the plotting – the red herring (or is it? or isn't it? or is it?) of an elderly nurse killer, the sheer handiness with which the pathologist happens to be an expert in the relevant psychiatry (and the unlikely conversation which reunites the pair a generation on from their last working together), I liked the book.

It might be that the biggest shock with it is that this Fred Vargas is a female, but I think I can recommend this – and especially when it arrives in paperback – for a distinctive style, and a calmly engaging story. The plotting is nicely done, and only the less realistic events, coincidences and conversations, and more way-out elements prevent it from getting a higher rating. I would not be at all averse to reading the four previous books that have been translated.

I would like to thank Harvill Secker for sending the Bookbag a copy to review.

You might also enjoy The Savage Altar by Asa Larsson.

Fred Vargas' Commissaire Adamsberg series in Chronological Order

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