A Climate of Fear

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AClimateofFear300Written by Fred Vargas, translated by Sian Reynolds — One of the challenges when writing a long-standing series is to find ways to keep it fresh and interesting. In her ninth Commissaire Adamsberg book, Vargas takes the inspector abroad. It’s not the first time she’s done it. Adamsberg has been to Quebec in Wash This Blood Clean from My Hand and to London in An Uncertain Place. However, this time he’s not going to a police conference but pursuing leads in the volcanic epicentre of Nordic noir action… Iceland!

In A Climate of Fear we find a combination of two of Fred Vargas’ favourite motifs – the historical mystery, and the remote village inhabited by eccentric and superstitious characters. She previously used the latter effectively in The Ghost Riders of Ordebec. Here, though, we can add a favourite universal crime trope of recent years – being cut off from civilisation in an unforgiving Icelandic landscape.

The story begins in Paris. Alice Gauthier is barely able to walk, clutching onto her Zimmer frame. She is so anxious that her nurse should not see the address on the letter she wants to send that she drags herself to the nearest postbox. Soon afterwards Alice drowns in her bath, but the police don’t think it was a suicide, especially when they find a strange sign on the edge of the tub. What did the letter contain, why was it so important to Alice, and could it have anything to do with her death?

Adamsberg and his team become embroiled in a very strange story involving a stud farm, a rich family and a wild boar in the Yvelines region not far from Paris. Then a second murder occurs and the only link between the victims appears to be that they both went to Iceland 10 years previously and ended up trapped on an uninhabited island in a snowstorm. Two members of their expedition died.

When more bodies turn up, the investigation switches tack. All of the victims were members of a historical re-enacment society tracing the rise and fall of Robespierre and his fellow revolutionaries. This part of the mystery may be somewhat obscure to readers unfamiliar with French history. Luckily, Adamsberg is nearly as clueless as the rest of us, and has to rely heavily on his deputy, the encylopedic Danglard, to fill in the details.

There is disagreement within the team as to which of the two directions is more promising. As is always the case with Vargas novels, rules are made to be broken or reinterpreted, and Comissaire Adamsberg pushes the boundaries of what is permissible more than most. He insists on pursuing the Iceland connection, which pushes his team almost to breaking point and open mutiny. The Icelandic scenes are full of foreboding and genuine tension, while the re-enactment scenes seem almost comical in comparison. Nevertheless, they leave an unpleasant aftertaste. That period of French history is known as the Reign of Terror with good reason.

The idiosyncrasies of each team member and the banter between them will be familiar and endearing to die-hard Vargas fans, but at times it is laid on so thickly that you might wonder if the author is not gently parodying herself. Fear not – Fred Vargas has not mellowed too much. There are still plenty of dark moments, haunting and claustrophobic landscapes, as well as that ever-present tinge of the supernatural or ‘not quite explainable’ which will appeal to fans of James Oswald or Dolores Redondo.

Vargas is the author of two series and while we highly rated the latest Three Evangelists novel Dog Will Have His Day, the last couple of books in the Adamsberg series have been slightly below her normal standard. There can be no doubt regarding this one, though. A Climate of Fear brings a return to form for the grand lady of French crime!

Harvill Secker

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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