I should probably save this piece of trenchant analysis for the end of my post — this is backwards blogging — but I feel the need to say it up front. A lot of critics have observed that mystery fans like to read mysteries because they create order: something deviant happens (usually a murder), and by the end, through logic and/or rule of law, justice and social order are restored. There’s nothing wrong with this formula, and Fred Vargas’s mysteries do roughly adhere to it. But within that very wide scope, they are, ‘ow shall I say, weird as eff, and follow no prescribed order at all.
In Provence, some terrible beast has been slaughtering sheep in the night. There are wolves in the area — Lawrence, a Canadian who used to make documentaries about grizzlies, is there to study them — but whatever has been killing the sheep is bigger than his beloved pack. When the animal tears the throat from Suzanne, a larger-than-life woman who ruled the district, rumors begin to fly of a loup-garou, a werewolf, a man with no hair on his skin because all the hair, as well as the brutality, is on the inside. Are the rumors true, or are they causing terrible trouble for an innocent man? An unlikely trio — an elderly shepherd, an African teenager who was Suzanne’s adopted son, and Camille, a plumber with a past — set off to find the truth, eventually with the help of Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, the unusual police commissaire from the first of these novels.
The atmosphere set up in the novel is genius. The sheep-killings are at first troubling, then disturbing, then outright horrifying as the news of one slaughter follows another. The notion of a werewolf begins to seem almost rational. No — not quite — he can’t be a werewolf really — but he could think he was a werewolf, couldn’t he? In the pitiless heat of the summer in Provence, it begins to seem logical that he could, and the night draws in darker, full of eyes.
Adamsberg is the most astonishing creation. He is the anti-Holmes, a completely nonlinear thinker, unable to understand a word of any language save his own, working completely off of dream and intuition. He has feelings and hunches, and when he retreats into himself to follow them, doodling in his notebook, they lead him to conclusions he never otherwise would have reached. The only thing that makes him bearable to his fellow officers is that he is deeply human, as aware of his own failings as he is of anyone else’s. In this particular book, there’s a side plot in which Adamsberg is being tracked by a woman who wants to murder him; he shows a particular delicacy over this that is not to be missed. I should say, too, that these books are full of a dry, dry humor. I read this in French, and I learned a lot of new vocabulary (Lawrence, the Canadian, thinks the French are “cradingue,” which means “grungy,” for instance.) It’s funny even while it’s tense; not so easily pulled off.
So yes, in the end, justice is restored. But the process, as in The Chalk-Circle Man, is just so charmingly weird. These police procedurals, which contain no procedure and some very unusual police, are a complete delight. I absolutely recommend them.