Shovelling Clouds

Adam Mars-Jones

  • Temps glaciaires by Fred Vargas
    Flammarion, 490 pp, €19.90, March 2015, ISBN 978 2 08 136044 0

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.

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