French crime writer extraordinaire

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Fred VargasThink crime fiction, think France, and the name that ought to come to mind is that of Fred Vargas. In my estimation one of the best fiction crime writers around today. Vargas, born Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau in Paris in 1957, is an archaeologist, historian political agitator and crime writer, but best known for the latter. She, along with her twin sister, adopted the name Vargas having seen the film 'The Barefoot Contessa' starring Ava Gardner. She is BIG in France, but elsewhere too, and rightly so. Vargas's works can be bizarre, quirky, humourous, refreshing, are definitely imaginative, and certainly well written.  Her series starring Commissaire Adamsberg you will find a joy to read; I waited so impatiently for the latest instalment, An Uncertain Place (2011), which I read in June.

Principal character Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, originally from the rural Pyrenees, is a Parisian murder squad head. Stubborn, intelligent yet unorthodox, and a romantic also. Books in the series include:

The Chalk Circle ManThe Chalk Circle Man 4 stars (Fr. 1996, English tr. 2009). Chalk circles start appearing on pavements around Paris, each containing what appears to be a random collection of objects, until one appears containing the body of a woman. If the objects in the circles are somewhat eclectic, so too are the various characters you will meet.  

Seeking Whom He May Devour 4 stars(Fr. 1999, English tr. 2004). Not Paris-based this time, but rural France. It appears a wolf might be at large killing sheep in the Alpes-Maritimes region, or is it a werewolf? Then a local farmer is killed. Adamsberg is called in by his old girlfriend to help track this killer. Adamsberg does not play such a major part in this book, and I have seen where some people have quibbles with the translation. But I have no reservations in highly recommending it, maybe too because you get such a sense of place in this book, something I yearn for in all the books I read. 

Have Mercy on Us All 3.5 stars (Fr. 2001, English tr. 2004). Strange and eerie messages, disturbing markings on doors reminiscent of the black death, and bodies showing signs of the plague, all threaten to start a city-wide panic. 

Wash this Blood Clean from my Hand 4 stars (Fr. 2004, English tr. 2007). Sees Adamsberg travel to Canada, become a suspect himself in a murder investigation, and being in pursuit of (or pursued by!) the long dead (??) serial killer, Judge Fulgence.

This Night's Foul Work 3.5 stars (Fr. 2006, English tr. 2008). Moving between Normandy and Paris, Adamsberg's past comes back to haunt him while he contends with two murders, the death of some stags, a pathologist with whom he has a history, and the disappearance of one of his team.

An Uncertain Place 3.5 stars (Fr. 2008, English tr. 2011). Moving between Paris, London, Austria and Serbia, this has everything. Adamsberg in London without a word of English, a pile of shoes containing feet in Highgate cemetry, a mutilated corpse in Paris, stories of vampires, and Adamsberg discovering something about himself. Humour too. And a touch of the gothic most definitely.


The Three EvangelistsThe Three Evangelists 4 stars (Fr. 1995, English tr. 2007). Not an Adamsberg book this one, but nevertheless one of my favourites! A retired opera singer discovers a tree has appeared in her garden overnight and enlists the help of her three historian neighbours to discover if something is buried underneath it. Later she disappears, turns up dead, and the three, with the assistance of an ex-policeman, set about investigating. Quirky, an interesting plot with twists and turns, and fabulous characters to boot. Loved it!


Other French crime writers (which I have not yet read):

Julia KristevaDominique Manotti and Pierre Lemaitre. (updated, 15 May 2013)

Notes: Fr. = french; tr. = translation. Star ratings are my own. 


The Ghost Riders of OrdebecUpdate: 'The Ghost Riders of Ordebec', the latest in the Commissaire Adamsberg series, is now available! Published in translation in March 2013, this latest sees Adamsberg again travel outside Paris when he agrees to investigate the strange happenings in a Normandy village terrorised by wild rumours and ancient feuds, and where he ends up investigating multiple murders. As this reviewer says, "For those who haven't picked Vargas off the shelf, I highly recommend sitting on a wall with Adamsberg this spring."

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