Devotees of the gritty police procedural must brace themselves for shocks when they enter the world of Fred Vargas, whose fine detective stories have won her three International Daggers. In her new novel, Temps glaciaires, a man is brought in for interrogation in connection with four murders. He is offered wine, and not just any wine but the 2004 white that Commandant Danglard sources from a small grower in the Sancerrois. The suspect enjoys the wine, asking if he can have the details of the supplier. But he’s still reluctant to talk, reluctant above all to cry in front of the cops. They promise him that they too cry from time to time, that it’s nothing to be ashamed of, but they reach an agreement about the recording of the interview. If at any point he feels the need to cry they will stop the tape.
This is not the way things happen in Spiral (Engrenages), the Paris-based television policier with a following on both sides of the Channel. In Spiral, the rules of engagement are murky to start with and violated even so, while political jockeying dominates the handling of cases. Technically the British system of criminal justice is adversarial and the French one inquisitorial, but Laure Berthaud and her team on Spiral don’t seem short of determined, even vicious adversaries who are technically on their side. By contrast, Vargas’s recurring detective Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg works cases without pressure from above in terms of results or resources. Though a colleague in Temps glaciaires complains that his life is being made a misery by a zealous new judge, a tick in human form, Adamsberg seems immune to administrative pests. He and his team get results, and are allowed to go about things in their own sidelong way.
Since Poe’s invention of Dupin, detection in literature has regularly been presented as a matter of strict logic, though of course the writer is working in the opposite direction from the detective, generating clues from the solution they will duly produce. Even so, there is a variety of approaches on display. In Agatha Christie’s books Poirot’s dedication to intellectual analysis alternates with Jane Marple’s fuzzier technique of parochial analogy, according to which an act of criminal evil recapitulates more trivial incidents without varying their geometry. Poirot deduces method while Marple intuits motive, studying human nature rather than the facts of the case as such.
Not every detective aspires to the status of logician or psychologist. This is Nero Wolfe lecturing his secretary-bodyguard Archie Goodwin, in Rex Stout’s Fer-de-Lance (1934), the first of the series:
Must I again remind you, Archie, of the reaction you would have got if you had asked Velázquez to explain why Aesop’s hand was resting inside his robe instead of hanging by his side? Must I again demonstrate that while it is permissible to request the scientist to lead you back over his footprints, a similar request of the artist is nonsense, since he, like the lark or the eagle, has made none? Do you need to be told again that I am an artist?
Vargas’s Commissaire Adamsberg is free of Wolfe’s egotism but his working methods also favour art rather than science. He’s all peripheral vision, vague in the extreme, a dab hand at drawing but a clumsy two-fingered typist with no ability to retain names. He uses sketches to patch up his defective memory. When he has noticed a significant detail, he has to work hard to winch it up into consciousness, a process that is described as being like shovelling clouds – though it’s also like the experience of Proust’s narrator, overwhelmed by the mingled taste in his teacup but unable without patient introspection to connect it to its referent memory. His deputy, Danglard, is his opposite, organised where Adamsberg is all over the place, dapper where he is scruffy. The two men are from very different backgrounds, though without much contrast of social class: Adamsberg is from Béarn in the south-west while Danglard’s ancestors were miners in the east. Adamsberg remains earthy, thinking more productively when near water and stone. His touch has a strongly calming effect, on people but also on animals. Meanwhile Danglard has made himself over into a personage entirely cultivated and urbane, preoccupied with keeping his shoes immaculate. He eats sausages with knife and fork, disapproving of Adamsberg’s use of fingers. Naturally they both smoke, though Adamsberg tries to restrict himself to other people’s cigarettes. Danglard likes to keep things moving, while Adamsberg often calls a halt to admire a rainbow or inspect a barn of an unusual type. The two men have been working together with great success for many years but it’s still ‘vous’ between them. Perhaps there’s some residual twinge of rank, despite Adamsberg’s indifference to status.
It’s important for the conduct of their investigations that Danglard should be prodigiously knowledgeable, filling his head with facts to make up for the emptiness of his life – earlier in the series he was a single parent, but now his five children are off his hands. For the same reason he fills his body with alcohol, though this is presented as a neutral characteristic. Vargas confesses to a great fondness for the British tradition of detective fiction but doesn’t import its moralism. In her squad you’d have to do more than drink yourself into a stupor on white wine every night to get your colleagues worrying.
If morality is a local variable it follows that the reasons for killing someone aren’t fixed for all time. Sexual secrets may lose their explosive force, and even jealousy may weaken as a motive for snuffing out a life. Detective fiction tends to be regarded as naturally right-wing, which may partly be a result of the writers’ need to conserve the stock of available motives. When the detective is a policeman, like Fred Vargas’s Adamsberg or Ruth Rendell’s Wexford, the importance of maintaining the moral order is taken for granted, but even so tensions can be felt. A Wexford novel of the 1980s, for instance, would be likely to treat recreational drug use unambiguously as a legal matter, while Rendell’s books without a detective need not be so hamstrung by police priorities and the conservative expectations of a mainstream audience.
For maximum tension, detective fiction prefers a closed community, often with idyllic aspects. It’s not so much that outsiders are a threat to community values as that they confuse the literary conventions. In practice the idyll can stand up to a lot of disruption – or rather, the idyll and its disruption occupy different imaginary levels and don’t conflict. People are always pointing out that the body count is stupendously high for a supposed peaceful backwater, but it doesn’t stop them from watching Midsomer Murders and wondering about property prices. The pastoral is a Japanese knotweed of a genre, sprouting back undaunted after even the most determined assault, like the conservation-area bloodbath that ends the film Hot Fuzz, where the Neighbourhood Watch is unmasked as a vicious cult eliminating undesirables to protect the village’s eminence in the table of the Best Kept.
Vargas introduced Adamsberg in L’Homme aux cercles bleus (1991, translated as The Chalk Circle Man in 2009), in which, lateral thinker from first to last, he eventually solves the mystery on the basis of stylistic clues in the prose of a women’s magazine. She resisted making him her regular detective. The opening section of The Three Evangelists (translated in 2006, though originally published in 1995) was devoted to establishing an informal investigative team, housemates who just happened to have the complementary skills to make sense of a mystery. This was done with a light comic touch: three impoverished young men, Marc, Lucien and Mathias, take on the lease of a dilapidated old building, each of them complaining about the arrangement since they have absolutely nothing in common. They all turn out to be academic historians, with different specialist areas – the Middle Ages, prehistory, the First World War. (Vargas herself is a medieval historian, or an ‘archéozoologue médiéviste’, while her brother Stéphane specialises in the Great War.) The medievalist’s uncle, a retired policeman, moves in, meaning that the team now has access to professional experience and old contacts.
It would be wasteful, after going to all the trouble of building this eccentric investigative team from scratch, to use it only once. Vargas produced a couple of creditable sequels, but the disadvantage of amateur investigators (even if they have a close working relationship with the official agencies) is that the crime doesn’t come to them, as it does to the police; they have to go to the crime. Settling on a policeman as her detective, though, hasn’t tamed Vargas’s unruly imagination. She keeps pumping up the eccentricity of Adamsberg’s team to the point where it threatens to explode into outright preposterousness. By the time of Temps glaciaires there is one officer on a three-hour sleep cycle, another with a fear of going hungry who stashes food everywhere, another who speaks in improvised alexandrines. The totem animal of the team is a large cat, the Snowball, with strong preferences, sleeping on top of the photocopier and consenting to eat only if he is carried to his chosen place and kept company while he feeds (the strapping Lieutenant Retancourt is a particular favourite of his). These characters have been summoned up one by one to play a part in Adamsberg’s adventures, and a less tender writer would have arranged some sort of cull by now, bureaucratic or violent. Vargas keeps them on, though only one or two are likely to play a substantial part in any book.
That’s Adamsberg’s work family. As for actual family, there’s not much on show. At the beginning of Temps glaciaires he’s worried about one of his sisters, who’s suffering from pneumonia, but neither disease nor patient gets another mention – the trailing thread would be less noticeable if it wasn’t part of the passage quoted on the back of the book, as if to advertise a deliberate mistake. In a piece of narrative bravura, Zerk, an adult son of Adamsberg’s, whose existence had been kept from him, appeared abruptly in An Uncertain Place (2008, translated 2011), hating his father and having no alibi for a particularly grotesque murder other than a reliable one, given the genre: the circumstantial near certainty that he is the guilty party. In later books Zerk recedes into the background, though reconciled and living with his father.
Writers need to be careful not to over-equip their detectives with kin, but an absolute absence of it seems fishy (Nero Wolfe has the bare bones, in the form of a mother in Budapest). A core relationship once introduced is hard to shed, as Edmund Crispin must have realised after giving the sleuth Gervase Fen a wife in his first detective novel, The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944). Dolly Fen even has a little dialogue in the book, knitting and twinkling like that unimaginable thing, a married Miss Marple, but she doesn’t earn her keep. After this single appearance she is shunted into a siding and left to rust. In later books Fen’s domesticity is erratically revived: ‘He went home and spent the remainder of the day eating, sleeping, reading, vilifying his children and practising desultorily on the French horn.’ Later in the same book, Frequent Hearses, Fen laments the arrival of the long vacation because there will be no demands on his time.
The happily married detective is a dull figure, as Ruth Rendell’s Wexford books tend to show, but it’s a major risk to destabilise a whodunnit with a romantic agenda. Not far into her sequence of Adamsberg books Vargas took the risk, with her detective – magnetic despite the scruffiness – having an affair with Camille Forestier, not a waitress/actress but that rarer hybrid, a musician/plumber. In Seeking Whom He May Devour (1999, translated 2004) it was Camille, on her travels, who was at close quarters to some baffling murders, while Adamsberg tried to solve them from a distance before having to intervene in person. In time the couple become estranged, though Camille has a child by him. In Temps glaciaires neither mother nor son gets a mention.
The difference between Vargas’s fictional world and the English tradition, however much she admires it, is shown in a single exchange of dialogue, when Adamsberg says in passing: ‘J’ai toujours une femme quelque part.’ These days British detectives may have sex lives, even non-standard ones, but worldliness on this level still counts as an imported luxury. British detective fiction of the Golden Age in the 1920s and 1930s was primitive in its sexual psychology, never more so than in the novels of John Dickson Carr. Carr, a naturalised American, could ventriloquise British understatement almost too well, as his biographical note on the back of vintage green Penguins demonstrates, noting his ‘slight difficulty that during the blitz our house was twice demolished while we were inside it’. He also reproduced in caricatural form the wooden passions of the domestic product. He had, though, spent some years in Paris as a young man, and the detective novels he set in France can be much less stereotypical in their treatment of sex.
The Waxworks Murder (1932) takes on real ambiguity when it is revealed that the small family-run waxworks where a body has been discovered keeps itself afloat financially by offering certain visitors discreet access, by way of a side entrance, to the house of assignations next door – essentially a swingers’ club, though the phrase wasn’t available at the time. Not only that, but the demure woman taking tickets at the waxworks plays a more adventurous role in the other premises, not experiencing the contrast as traumatic but as slyly enjoyable. Never mind the limitations of genre fiction – not many literary novels in English between the wars were as unhypocritical about sexual morality. Use of a French setting made possible a side-stepping of the conventions in force domestically. (In He Who Whispers from 1946, set in both England and France, it’s as if Carr splits the difference, to bizarre effect, with nymphomania neither recoiled from with horror nor accepted with a shrug but regarded as a tragic medical condition.)
Carr’s detectives are eccentric bachelors, and that’s still the template. Dorothy L. Sayers hardly seemed to believe in Peter Wimsey’s passion for Harriet Vane, and no one else is likely to. In his book Strangers: Homosexual Love in the 19th Century, Graham Robb made a strong case that the granddaddy of them all, Poe’s Dupin, is coded as homosexual. Offering a dry précis of ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’, he writes: ‘There is, of course, nothing essentially odd about the passionate, secretive and nocturnal friendship of two strange men in a crime-ridden city, even if one of them is a dandy with a “diseased” mind and the other, later in the tale, finds a muscle-bound sailor (the owner of the orang-utan) “not altogether unprepossessing”.’ A similar suggestion made about Sherlock Holmes seems more startling, because of the camouflaging presence in those stories of so much conventional morality. Still, Robb maintains that ‘without the tense, suppressed passion that binds him to his biographer, Holmes is just a man with an interesting hobby.’ Here Dr Watson functions as an unreliable narrator of a very stolid kind, not noticing that the only woman to be admired by Holmes, Irene Adler, wears men’s clothes, and failing (in The Sign of Four) to interpret Holmes’s agitation when Mary Morstan, first client, then fiancée and finally wife, breaks his emotional monopoly and possibly his heart. After Watson is bereaved of Mary (no cause of death given) he moves back in and the intimacy is renewed – ‘Watson’s hands are clutched, his knees patted, and his ears brushed by Holmes’s whispering lips,’ Robb writes. He also cites many other examples of ‘passionate male friendships associated with uncanny deductive powers and a desire for social justice’, from the Lone Ranger and Tonto to Batman and Robin.
Rex Stout’s creation Nero Wolfe, at least, has no desire for social justice – his amorality, never quite proven nor quite going away, being one reason for the richness and rereadability of the books. In other ways he fits the pattern. He and Archie Goodwin are functionally bachelors, Wolfe by reason of obesity, immobility and misanthropy, Archie because he has ‘a tendency to fight shy of bonds’, though willing from time to time to plant ‘a thorough one, of medium duration’ on a suitable face. In the first book of the series strong emphasis is placed on Wolfe’s physical grotesqueness, but by the second it turns out that a present from him, an ostrich-skin card case, is one of Archie’s prized possessions (‘I might have traded it for New York City if you had thrown in a couple of good suburbs’). It has gold cattleya orchids tooled on one side, 52 gold Colt automatics on the other, and may be the campest object in the universe.
Robb’s argument is that there is a buried connection between sexual outsiders and privileged insights, with the detective approximating to the tribal berdache. Perhaps it’s more that the detective’s own life must be empty if he is to resonate properly with the secrets in other people’s. Certainly with the evaporation of Camille Forestier from the Adamsberg books what remains is a world almost entirely male. Adamsberg’s son Zerk has settled down into an almost wifely role, cooking the detective dinner and asking about his day. The exception is Lieutenant Retancourt, but her strength is beyond any masculine measure and her femininity is paradoxical. At one stage she is put on surveillance duty, something her colleagues think inappropriate because of her physical conspicuousness. Then, much to their surprise, she pulls out needles and wool. The virginal Valkyrie has taken up knitting.
The contrast between Golden Age product and its modern equivalent is most obviously the contrast between mystery-footprints-in-the-flowerbed and laboratory science as practised on CSI in its various sub-franchises by hunky or foxy boffins. Vargas has always minimised the presence and prestige of technology in her whodunnits, perhaps from the feeling that hard science is imaginatively limiting. It also dates very quickly. Even so, restricting forensic science was more straightforward when her plots were relatively low-key. In The Chalk Circle Man, for instance, large circles drawn in blue chalk started appearing on the pavements of Paris, with assorted objects arranged inside the perimeter, and Adamsberg intuited a sinister intention. CSI wouldn’t be able to get very far with that – even under ultraviolet light it’s not much to go on.
Since then, though, Vargas’s books have more or less doubled in length and become very extravagant – baroque doesn’t seem too strong a word. Nothing could be less like the slow build-up of The Three Evangelists, on whose first page a retired opera singer remarks to her husband that the tree in their garden wasn’t there the day before, than the Grand Guignol of a scene near the beginning of An Uncertain Place (2008, translated 2011), where a row of shoes is discovered outside Highgate Cemetery. The feet are still in them. Missing from the later books is the sense of Paris seen from an inclusive social angle, and the idea that those who live on the margins make the best witnesses, since their survival depends on alertness.
From the time of Wash This Blood Clean from My Hand (2004, translated 2007) the element of the supernatural, sometimes suggested in previous books but dissipated by the solution, becomes more resistant to explanation. Increasingly, motives transcend the personal, so that murders may be done to eliminate a whole class of being or to procure the ingredients for a recipe for immortality. Preposterous moments multiply: there’s a scene in Wash This Blood Clean from My Hand where Adamsberg, framed for murder, is concealed from the Mounties (it’s a long story) by Retancourt, a Rhinemaiden in girth and strength, in her hotel bathroom. Though he weighs 75 kilos, he clings on to her from behind, inside her unfastened dressing gown, and the Mounties are too gentlemanly, or too intimidated by her physique, to conduct a proper search. In This Night’s Foul Work (2006, translated 2008), Retancourt disappears, and the only way to locate her is to let the Snowball smell something she has worn and then wait for him to track her down – as I said, the Snowball is particularly attached to the lieutenant. The cat, with a transmitter in his collar, is followed by two motorbikes and a helicopter (in case he goes cross-country). He exhausts himself tracking Retancourt for 38 kilometres and is rewarded by being allowed to share her stretcher in the ambulance.
Purists decry the presence of action scenes in detective novels, on the basis that a story starting with pure logic but ending in gunplay and car chases is like a game of chess that turns into a punch-up. Certainly late-arriving action scenes can resemble consolation prizes, intended to make up for the disappointment that almost invariably attends the unmasking of the killer, but in a book of more than four hundred pages a climax in some extrovert style is close to a formal requirement.
Temps glaciaires is the most successful book so far in Vargas’s baroque period, with the attendant excesses reined in. It’s an outstandingly fluid piece of storytelling. The plot twists are smoothly managed, though plot twists seems exactly the wrong phrase – they’re more like plot surges, and the storyline isn’t a rollercoaster but a force field of possibilities. It’s remarkable to give such an unmechanical performance in a genre where mechanism is part of the point. If this is a police procedural then it’s one in which procedural aspects are more or less elided, with Danglard’s virtual omniscience allowing background material to filter into the investigation without interrupting it. The group of murders under investigation connects plausibly to two locations: a tragedy in an isolated part of Iceland ten years previously, and a club in Paris devoted to historical reconstructions of the 18th century. The survivors of the Iceland incident had no prior connections with one another and dispersed without contacting the authorities, making them more or less impossible to trace. The club sounds as if it should be easier to get to grips with, but it isn’t.
While English reconstruction societies re-create battles of the Civil War, this French counterpart replays debates held in the National Assembly at the time of the Terror. Violence takes place offstage, in the tradition of Greek tragedy, but there is still an element of taboo in coming so close to a national trauma. It’s understandable that the preservation of anonymity should be taken to extremes, with all participants (including spectators) appearing wigged and in period costume. Those with speaking parts are painstakingly made up to resemble those whose roles they are playing. There is no equivalent of a membership card. Instead the palms of members’ hands are photographed, and the photographs compared with the originals before admission is granted to the meetings. The club has more than seven hundred members, all of them potential victims and potential killers – plenty of clouds there to be shovelled. Vargas is too good a historian to offer her readers a history lesson – and besides, the Terror isn’t her period – but the studies of Robespierre listed on the acknowledgments page haven’t gone to waste.
The Iceland strand of plot is linked to a thriving stud farm near Versailles, another uncertain place – there’s an adjoining area, Le Creux (the hollow), that is literally off the map, a haunted kilometre or so between two villages. Neither village wanted to claim it as their land after the Second War, when a new survey was commissioned. Fine, but all the Gothic locations and liminal spaces in the world can’t hold a readership if the characters don’t convince. Luckily Vargas can portray someone like Céleste, an old woman with a pipe who lives in a log cabin in the grounds of the stud farm, with real economy of line. Adamsberg notices a patch on the earthen floor that seems slightly damp. ‘Does Marc piss in here?’ he asks, Marc being her half-tame wild boar (another totem animal). When she says yes, Adamsberg is enough of a countryman to be able to contradict her and put her under pressure, knowing that the animal would mark his territory outside. Under the disturbed patch of earth is a missing whisky glass, an important clue, though buried by Céleste for sentimental reasons. She tells Adamsberg that Marc will see him out – ‘as if she was referring to her major-domo at the end of a civilised evening’. Marc does the honours. Adamsberg gives instructions for the glass to be returned to Céleste after testing. Three hundred and fifty pages later, Vargas can justifiably expect her readers to remember Céleste and her pet boar, and to care about what happens to them, without needing to do anything strenuous and amateurish, like writing another scene to develop characters who are already fully present.