Written by Fred Vargas, translated by Sian Reynolds — A four-time winner of the CWA International Dagger, Fred Vargas is arguably France’s finest contemporary crime writer. With every book, you enter a familiar fictional landscape that is not quite reality but rather a uniquely Gallic mélange of the whimsical, witty and violently deranged.
The only downside for an English reader of Vargas – the pseudonym of Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau – is the somewhat haphazard approach to translating her novels. Her 1991 debut featuring Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg was finally published out of sequence in 2009 as The Chalk Circle Man. For fans of her other playful crime series, it has been an even more frustrating experience. The first novel, The Three Evangelists, appeared in English in 2006, so I’ve been waiting eight years for this sequel.
Dog Will Have His Day is certainly vintage Vargas. It was first published in France in 1996 when Ian Rankin was an up-and-coming crime writer and nobody had yet heard of JK Rowling. Fortunately, Vargas has a timeless appeal: she tends to focus on fundamental issues of the heart and intellect over everyday details that might date her work.
The three evangelists are unemployable, history post-graduates who become embroiled in curious cases wherein their academic disciplines sometimes help. The trio have also acquired nicknames – St Mark, St Luke and St Matthew – although Dog Will Have His Day should more accurately be described as a one-and-a-half evangelists adventure.
In fact, the hero is Louis Kehlweiler, a former senior Ministry of Justice investigator on his uppers. Known as ‘The German’ because of his awkward wartime parentage, Louis is a bit of a boozer, keeps a pet toad called Bufo in his pocket and often shares his thoughts on cases with his amphibian friend (see what I mean by whimsical?). Now operating as a lone wolf, Louis has maintained his network of contacts across France and employs a system of numbered public benches to map out the streets of Paris.
At bench 102, his oddball informants are keeping an eye on suspicious activity involving a far right politician. By the seat, an eagle-eyed Louis suddenly notices something: a small bone that has been defecated by a dog. What’s more, he claims that the bone contained in the excrement is part of a human big toe. It’s a typical Vargas opening that’s both horrible and hilarious, and it has you hooked.
When Louis sets out on a seemingly impossible mission to locate the body – dead or alive – to which the toe belonged, he recruits a hesitant Marc Vandoosler (St Mark), who’s got a part-time job through his ex-cop uncle helping trawl through reports of strange incidents from across the country for Louis’s crime archive. Marc is reluctant to take any more time off his study of the 13th century Burgundy economy, though he becomes drawn into the tracking of various Parisian dogs and their owners.
Marc is not getting paid and it seems money is not a motive for the obsessive Louis. Vargas’s characters tend towards the quirky and their unusual thought processes are often as compelling as the crime under investigation, which has the effect of making you start to imagine that people around you in real life are odder than appearances suggest. Vargas is that rare writer who can make you look at the world differently.
The fantastic, surreal quality to the investigation intensifies when the duo head to a Brittany fishing village in search of their suspect – a pit bull terrier – and encounter the strange couple who own the dog, an indolent mayor and Louis’s ex-girlfriend. Mathias Delamarre (St Matthew) arrives late on the scene just as there’s a gathering of the suspects in the quintessential French café.
Despite its age, Dog Will Have His Day is as good as any crime novel you’ll read this year and it underlines the remarkable achievement of Fred Vargas in creating not one but two ingenious series in the genre. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait another eight years for the follow-up.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars