The Ghost Riders of Ordebec

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ghostridersofordebecWritten by Fred Vargas — A new Fred Vargas novel is always a happy event for her legions of admirers, whether in the original French or translated into English, and she has won the CWA International Dagger three times. She is not as prolific as other crime writers, so sometimes we have to put up with a longer wait. Vargas herself admits that this is because she uses writing as a form of therapy, to relax from the rigours of her research work into the bubonic plague and other medieval topics. This is her 13th novel written over a 22-year period and it feels like a mellower offering than some of her previous ones.

Entitled L’armee furieuse – The Furious Army – when released in France, the book reintroduces the gently melancholic and intuitive Commissaire Adamsberg, one of Vargas’ most popular creations. There are two cases to tackle: a rich Parisian businessman torched to death in his car, and a strange tale of ghostly visions and revenge in the small village of Ordebec in Normandy.

Local legend has it that when the Furious Army horsemen appear, they target those with serious crimes on their conscience. Lo and behold, a young woman has such a vision, of  four local men being pursued by this ghostly army. The local gendarmerie dismisses this as silly superstition until the first man who appeared in her vision, one of the most notoriously cruel men in the area, is found murdered. Adamsberg finds himself drawn into claustrophobic village life, long-running feuds and  increasingly panicked rumours as he tries to protect the young woman and her family. Although most of the action takes place in Normandy, the Paris investigation is by no means an open-and-shut case. Gradually, the two cases begin to merge… and not just in the mind of Adamsberg and his team.

Adamsberg is one of the most appealing, yet oddly infuriating creations in modern detective fiction. Always dressed in a black shirt and trousers, regardless of the weather, the Commissaire operates on a different time scale to his peers. He doesn’t really have a method as such. Instead, he believes that the choicest pearls of information in an inquiry come from those ‘almost imperceptible interstices’ between facts. He has inherited Maigret’s talent for talking to people. Like his famous predecessor, Adamsberg seems to spend a lot of time in cafés, listening intently, asking seemingly unrelated questions, then gradually builds up a picture of the crime and the criminal.

Vargas’s strength lies in the rich and warm description of the team surrounding Adamsberg, rather than just focusing on the single hero. At first glance, he seems to have an ill-matched and dysfunctional team: the statuesque Violette Retancourt, the backbone of the team; encyclopedic Danglard, the fount of all obscure knowledge and a stickler for correct procedure; Veyrenc with his orange-streaked hair and love of versification; and omnivorous Froissy with her endless supply of snacks and narcoleptic Mercadet. Add to this an informal collaborator in the form of Adamsberg’s recently discovered son, Zerk, and you seem to have a recipe for disaster. However, this is a team bound by loyalty and mutual respect. Despite occasional flare-ups, the team has learnt to work with each other’s idiosyncracies and can deliver results. Even if the methodology is a bit rebellious or even anarchic at times.

If you are already a Vargas fan, you will enjoy this latest outing. However, this particular novel may not be the best place to start if you have never come across her work before, and that’s not just because you would be missing a lot of the back story and will be baffled by the quirky humour of the situation. The main problem is that this is a gentler, cosier piece of writing than the usual Vargas fare. It is a good read, far above the average, but not one of her outstanding novels. If you want a better introduction to her utterly original and disquieting world, you might try Seeking Whom He May Devour, Have Mercy on Us All, or Wash This Blood Clean from My Hand.

Vargas was one of the five recommended authors in our recent feature on contemporary crime fiction, which you’ll find here. The Ghost Riders of Ordebec is released on 7 March.

Harvill Secker

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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