Fred Vargas is a woman. Said to be the sixth best-selling author in France, she is unusual there in being a female crime writer, in contrast with women’s dominance of the genre in Britain. Vargas also writes like a woman, if that implies an interest in character, feeling and motive, rather than ‘brutality and eroticism’ (Queneau’s description of the polar – a contraction of policier – a genre inspired by the Série noire’s postwar translations of American crime novels). There’s a moment in her latest thriller, Un lieu incertain, when an armed punk breaks into the detective’s home and starts throwing his weight around. The boy seems to have wandered in from some hard-boiled tale of urban dystopia, quite unlike the world Vargas has perfected over 13 police mysteries: fanciful, ironic, glancingly philosophical, freshly, even childishly funny – a retro-French whimsicality à la Prévert. Later it turns out that the boy was acting a part, goaded into it by the real murderer, and integrity is restored.
Vargas’s writing began as a hobby. She is by profession an archaeozoologist, a specialist in relations between human beings and animals, who uses gnawed bones to make deductions about anything from medieval menus to imaginative or symbolic structures. Born in 1957 to an imposing father who knew the surrealists and studied art, nature and myth, and a sensible, scientist mother, she chose a field that merged her parents’ strengths. Under her real name, Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau, her most recent publication is Les Chemins de la peste, on plague transmission.
Her fiction has a strong feeling for popular myth and superstition, a default recourse to the unconscious as explanatory device, and a love of the marvellous-ordinary that reminds one of the surrealist preference for life over art, the street over the museum. The very strange plots she drafts each summer vacation and corrects over Christmas retell the archetypal story – an enigma resolved, a peril overcome – that she regards as the fount of all narrative. Recently, when Wash This Blood Clean from My Hand was being serialised, she told Télérama that her books are contemporary fairy tales,
founded on the collective unconscious: stories we need in order to live. They are built on the same structure, around a vital danger, whether it be the Minotaur in the labyrinth, a dragon hidden in the forest or a serial killer lurking in the city. Crime novels are not about good and evil, order and disorder, they are novels of death. After a series of false trails, the hero will triumph. It’s a cathartic process.
In This Night’s Foul Work, the detective hero remarks of a macabre moment in Maupassant: ‘Just a story, all the same. And the point of stories is to stop them happening in real life.’ A neat metafictional joke, the story-book cop voicing his creator’s theory about stories. Commissaire Adamsberg often talks about the parallel between the crime-solver and the storyteller (and, one could add, the therapist), each of whom interprets a riddle, confident of the existence of an answer that will provide closure. Elsewhere in the novel he tells a troubled new recruit:
‘Finish the story, Veyrenc.’
‘Do I have to?’
‘Yes, I think so.’
‘Because it’s our job to finish stories. If you want to start them, go back to teaching. If you want to finish them, stay being a cop.’
There is a double meaning here, because Adamsberg is urging Veyrenc to go further in recalling a terrible assault he suffered as a child. In Vargas, personal traumas as well as public crimes find their denouement, even if, as is conventional in a detective series, the recurring characters never really develop despite these resolutions.
One of Vargas’s weaknesses in her early novels was the rigidity of her depiction of character. The ‘Three Evangelists’ series of the 1990s concerns a team of three young historian-sleuths whose looks, personalities and abilities are a function of their period of expertise: the prehistorian lumbers about half-naked, attuned to the speech of earth and stone; the medievalist wears Gothic rings and has a social intelligence sharpened by the ‘contrasts and the audacity of the Middle Ages’; the First World War scholar interprets everything in terms of fronts and trenches. Wisely, she soon abandoned that conceit, although her Evangelists have cameo parts in later novels.
Then came Seeking Whom He May Devour (1999), which brought back her original cop, Adamsberg (not seen since 1996, when he appeared in a sweet but slight mystery now translated as The Chalk Circle Man), in a story that addresses what has become Vargas’s major theme: the persistence of mythical thought in modern life. This book dramatises the conflicts between wildlife and farming and – conventionally – the detective’s inability to commit to his woman. As wolves are reintroduced into the Mercantour national park, superstitious locals jump to magical conclusions when sheep and the occasional human are found eviscerated. Adamsberg joins Camille, a sententious shepherd, on the trail of the alleged werewolf.
Have Mercy on Us All (2001), written while Vargas was researching the plague book, imagines the deliberate propagation of that disease today. When blackened, flea-ridden corpses are found in empty apartments, panic is unleashed and protective symbols – the inverse 4, a medieval talisman against the plague – are scrawled on doors all over France. The fleas themselves are harmless; the real killers, it turns out, have been administering the virus through the agency of a deeply damaged character who believes he has inherited a power over this historic scourge. Collaborating with the detectives is a group of misfits and survivors who represent a somewhat wistful constant in Vargas’s work, the virtue of the small community in the city. A shared apartment block in which neighbours can form a substitute family is figured as a space of solidarity that enables people to hold out against individual and social madness.
Medieval folk myth provides the content for each spooky outbreak in Vargas’s novels. As for method, archaeology – with its diggings and delvings, partial clues and painstaking reconstructions – might seem almost too neat an image for the process of detection. But while Vargas is interested in the buried traces, cultural, material and psychological, that make the past the key to the present, her mature stories work backwards and sideways, mostly through induction. ‘I’m searching for the way in which he thinks,’ Adamsberg says. The narrative must be filled in: ‘what was missing was the set of nuances, the bridge between the two riverbanks, one deep in shadow, the other brightly sunlit.’
Faced with a conundrum Adamsberg goes for a long walk, or daydreams for hours in his favourite Irish pub, ‘for that is how Adamsberg found his ideas – simply by waiting for them to turn up. When one rose before his eyes like a dead fish on the crest of a wave, he picked it up, turned it over, asked himself whether he needed this item at the moment.’ His thought processes are compared to magma, to mist. His eyes change and his skin glows eerily when he’s onto something, when he has one of the crackpot hunches which are the despair of the 13th arrondissement murder squad. Adamsberg is ignorant, and can’t remember names, but his number two, Danglard, is ‘a being of phenomenal erudition, at the helm of a complex network of infinite knowledge which, in Adamsberg’s opinion, had come to constitute the whole of him, replacing all of his organs one by one, making you wonder how Danglard was still able to move around like an almost normal chap’. But Danglard is a normal chap, a sentimental single father of five who subsists on white wine; Adamsberg, by contrast, exists in a state of detachment.
Between the two, a bemused crew of junior officers can’t
understand the core of this bitter struggle between accuracy and vagueness, but they all favoured one side or another. The positivists thought that Adamsberg dragged out investigations, taking them wilfully into the fog, leaving his colleagues trailing behind him without instructions or road maps. The others, the cloud shovellers . . . thought that the commissaire’s results quite justified the vagaries of the investigation . . . Someone could be a positivist one day and a cloud shoveller the next or vice versa.
Vargas assigns special attributes to each member of the team, and each quirk or skill contributes to the ‘false trails’ as well as the final ‘triumph’. Yet it’s always Adamsberg’s counterfactual obstinacy that achieves the decisive breakthrough, as when he decides, to general derision, that a stag’s heart simply must contain a bone if the logic of an ancient spell is to be explained, or when he senses, in moments of physical certainty the trigger for which he does not immediately understand, that some fundamental clue or insight is at hand. Here he discovers how to spot the elusive plague-monger:
He knelt down and dropped a pebble in the harbour. It made the reflection shimmer and shake like a man in a fever. Tiny slivers of moonlight caught the edges of each ripple. Adamsberg froze with the flat of his hand on the ground. The monger was nigh. He was there . . . Adamsberg, still on his knees, scanned the quay yard by yard. No, he wasn’t on the dockside. He was near but not there. With barely a muscle moving Adamsberg threw another equally tiny pebble into the still, dark water . . . That’s where he was. On water. On shining water. In the twinkling that came and went . . . Like a lichen breaking free from a submarine cliff, the picture that he’d lost the day before on the square in Paris began its gradual ascent towards the surface. Adamsberg was barely breathing. His eyes were closed. It was in the sparkle. The picture was the sparkle . . . It had moved in a sweeping, downward direction, as if a hand had held a shooting star . . . He’d got it . . . It was the monger’s twinkle and it came from his talismanic ring. He’d been there, on the square, protected.
The commissioner also gets things wrong. His inability to listen and his ‘high-handed indifference’, in the resentful words of a subordinate, are bad for his soul and for the investigations. There’s a tricky balance between originality and failure to play the collective game: for all her sympathy with oddballs, what Vargas has called esprit de bande (something you develop on long, uncomfortable archaeological digs) is central to her orphans’ world, devoid of good parenting or happy couples, where comradeship is always the best bet. Wash This Blood Clean from My Hand, unusually ruthless and terribly funny, castigates Adamsberg for his solipsism and obtuseness about people. Faced with the possibility that he has fantasised about the continued activities of a deceased murderer to the point of having acted them out himself (did he kill a girlfriend with a trident when drunk?), he loses faith in himself and, less forgiveably, in his team. What follows, as he goes on the run and has to be rescued, makes a case for humility and trust, but it is argued against the hallucinatory backdrop of a fairy-tale forest full of watery reflections in which guilt and innocence mirror each other.
In the resolution of her plots, Vargas, as Borges said of Chesterton, ‘performs a tour de force by proposing a supernatural explanation and then replacing it, losing nothing, with one from this world’; but it’s not quite the world as we know it. On the one hand, the creepy codes and barbaric rituals of plague-mongers or vampires are just the props of their delusions, and in the kitsch esoterics of their crimes Father Brown might object to the absence of any God at all. On the other hand, that Danglard should know the facts about everything, in instant, pedantic detail; that Veyrenc should comment on events in flowery alexandrines; or that Lieutenant Retancourt should be able to sleep standing up, like the horses she outruns – all these are marks of the more modest enchantment that pervades the novels’ secular-materialist world.
The enchantment is shown above all in the treatment of animals, some of which (true to the fairy-tale mode and in defiance of the perils of whimsy) can practically talk. This Night’s Foul Work, featuring a virgin-killer who’s after a medieval immortality potion, is full of the mystique of animals: Retancourt’s lazy but adoring cat plods 38 kilometres to find her, tracked by helicopters and police cars, in a stirring set-piece. Audoin-Rouzeau has written of the use of animals as symbols and familiars, and Vargas describes a drinks dispenser as the udder of a cow; repressed psychosis as a thousand-year-old fish at the bottom of a lake; and has Adamsberg work out his jealousy of Veyrenc by telling his baby son a fable about posturing ibexes. One secret of her work’s anachronistic, escapist appeal is its folding of the natural-allegorical world into language and plot.
If technology is of any use in police work, it’s only as an extension of living beings (‘He took the scarab with red and green legs out of his pocket and dialled her number on its shiny back’); divorced from the organic order, it becomes inert. Invited to Ottawa for an advanced forensics course with the Mounties, Adamsberg can only make sense of what he’s told is the ‘molecular race’ within the genetic sequencing machine by drawing a queen ant pursued by males, and is soon sneaking off to explore the landscape. The businesslike Canadians think he’s a dope.
Vargas’s most likeable characters are often innocent in both senses, and the meanings combine in the figure of the scapegoat: the swaggering young punk in Un lieu incertain, for instance, who naively collaborates in the appearance of his own guilt by breaking in and acting murderous. That particular portrait is no coincidence, one feels: Vargas has taken a prolonged sabbatical to lead the defence of her friend and fellow writer Cesare Battisti, threatened with extradition to Italy for terrorist crimes during the Years of Lead which she is adamant he didn’t commit.
Innocence extends, in the most radical leap of her work as a moralist, to the characters with blood on their hands. How responsible is the fragile ego that was itself abused? Vargas is sceptical about the family, and parental cruelty is always responsible for the obsessions of her criminals. Since healing is impossible, her novels settle, almost shockingly in these vengeful days, for tolerance and leniency. One culprit gets away because Adamsberg won’t shoot him in the back. They don’t bother going after him, because he’s old, and he’s already killed the people he had to in order to complete his hand of mah-jong. Another is captured just as she is about to down what she thinks is a magic potion, so Adamsberg discreetly decants some for her. Later, over a beer with his one-armed neighbour – whose phantom itch, caused by a insect bite just before losing the arm, supplies a repeated image of the respect due to unfinished business – he says that this woman ‘was preparing a diabolical potion that she wanted to swallow. And I thought it was probably best in the end that she should swallow it.’ The story must be finished, even when it isn’t true.