On the Trail of the Alleged Werewolf

Lorna Scott Fox

  • Un lieu incertain by Fred Vargas
    Viviane Hamy, 385 pp, €18.00, June 2008, ISBN 978 2 87858 285 7
  • BuyWash This Blood Clean from My Hand by Fred Vargas, translated by Siân Reynolds
    Vintage, 388 pp, £7.99, January 2008, ISBN 978 0 09 948896 5
  • BuyThis Night’s Foul Work by Fred Vargas, translated by Siân Reynolds
    Vintage, 409 pp, £7.99, February 2009, ISBN 978 0 09 950762 8
  • The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas, translated by Siân Reynolds
    Harvill Secker, 247 pp, £12.99, February 2009, ISBN 978 1 84343 272 2

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.’

‘Why?’

  ‘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.

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