Vargas, Fred - 'The Ghost Riders of Ordebec' (translated by Sian Reynolds)
A fragile and panic-stricken old woman journeys to Paris to see Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, the only policeman she trusts to help with the peculiar affliction that's fallen on her home village of Ordebec. Her daughter has seen a vision: ghostly horsemen who target society's rotten apples. One such man has disappeared, and it seems three more are in the firing line unless Adamsberg can unravel the forces of superstition which have the village in their thrall.
Adamsberg, beset by problems of his own, is glad of the excuse to escape Paris even if he has no real business investigating this case. He strikes up a friendship with a village elder, L�one, who knows Ordebec's strange cast of characters intimately. When L�one falls victim to the evil afoot, Adamsberg becomes determined to solve the case, aided and abetted by his own strange cast of helpmates.
Is it bad form to quote another person's review at this point? Only I was struck by the words from The Times which adorn the cover of this new Vargas: "One of today's truly original writers of crime fiction: disturbing, unruly, droll and poetic".
Unruly, droll and poetic sum up Vargas' wiles beautifully. She also does a perfectly-pitched line in anarchy. Her hero, Adamsberg, refuses to fit any of the classical moulds for detectives, and his support cast is as weird and wacky as it gets � from the statuesque Retancourt and Veyrenc with his terrible rhyming couplets, to Danglard the drunken genius and now Zerk, Adamsberg's recently discovered son, whose stumbling relationship with his father is a joy to read.
Vargas has a genius for weaving a strand of the supernatural into her crime stories without breaking faith with the credibility of her plot. In previous novels, she's had readers almost believing in vampires, werewolves and ghosts, before extracting a commonsensical explanation at the last moment.
THE GHOST RIDERS OF ORDEBEC (published in France under an alternative title that translates as The Furious Army) is no exception, with its evocation of a terrible legend with the power to drive ordinary people to commit murder. Yet there is never any doubt that this legend is being manipulated by a killer who's very much alive. With a surfeit of suspects, can dreamy and distracted Jean-Baptiste sort the clues from the red herrings? You'll be turning the pages to find out, but also because Vargas has created a compelling world of characters that is simply irresistible.
You care, deeply, for Adamsberg and Danglard and their team. You care for poor besieged L�one and her sugar-hungry hound, Fleg, and for the crazy Vendermots who would need an entire social services team working overtime just to sort out their problems. Damn it, you even care for the crippled pigeon that sleeps (and craps) in Adamsberg's shoe.
And Vargas breaks every rule to bring you to this point. You can't empathise with these characters; they're simply too strange. You don't recognise yourself or loved ones, or anyone, in these pages. Vargas doesn't manipulate your emotions in any conventional way, shape or form. She simply writes astoundingly differently. She dares to write this way, jumping from character to character across the page like one of the fleas in that filthy pigeon, inviting you to keep pace with her unruliness, her droll voice, her poetry. And it is anarchy on her part. Joyful, disturbing anarchy. Because who else is daring to break these rules, and doing it with such panache?
While it would be wonderful to think Vargas is a trailblazer for more crime fiction of this kind, I suspect she's a one-off. And so I must wait another year to be delighted all over again by her next astounding book.
Sarah Hilary, England
Sarah Hilary is the Bristol-based winner of the Cheshire Prize of Literature 2012, the Sense Creative Writing Award 2010 and the Fish Criminally Short Histories Prize 2008. In 2012, she launched Flashbang, a crime writing contest in association with CrimeFest. Sarah's debut novel, SOMEONE ELSE'S SKIN, will be published by Headline in 2014.
Details of the author's other books with links to reviews can be found on the Books page.
More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.
Commissaire Adamsberg is the creation of the French historian, archaeologist and author Fred Vargas.
Adamsberg is one of the Parisian police forces’ most unusual and unorthodox members. He tends to ignore clues and obvious suspects – and often arrests people with strong alibis. He is a dreamer, often seeming distracted, and colleagues are frequently baffled by his amazing success rate. He has a deep understanding of human nature, allowing him to predict suspect’s moves before they themselves make them.
Vargas’s writing is of the highest quality – she’s even won the CWA International Dagger for translated crime fiction, along with her translator Siân Reynolds, a staggering four times.
If you’re yet to discover this series then we promise you’re in for a treat. Here’s a taster of all the books in the series…
Commissaire Adamsberg books in order
The Chalk Circle Man
Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is not like other policemen. His methods appear unorthodox in the extreme: he doesn’t search for clues; he ignores obvious suspects and arrests people with cast-iron alibis; he appears permanently distracted. In spite of all this his colleagues are forced to admit that he is a born cop.
When strange blue chalk circles start appearing overnight on the pavements of Paris, only Adamsberg takes them – and the increasingly bizarre objects found within them – seriously. And when the body of a woman with her throat savagely cut is found in one, only Adamsberg realises that other murders will soon follow.
Seeking Whom He May Devour
In this frightening and surprising novel, the eccentric, wayward genius of Commissaire Adamsberg is pitted against the deep-rooted mysteries of one Alpine village’s history and a very present problem: wolves.
Disturbing things have been happening up in the French mountains; more and more sheep are being found with their throats torn out. The evidence points to a wolf of unnatural size and strength. However Suzanne Rosselin thinks it is the work of a werewolf.
Have Mercy On Us All
Three times a day in a Parisian square, a curious modern-day crier announces the news items that are left in his box. Over the course of a few days he receives a number of disturbing and portentous messages of malicious intent, all of them referring to the Black Death. Strange marks have also appeared on the doors of several buildings: symbols once used to ward off the plague.
Detective Commissaire Adamsberg begins to sense a connection, even a grotesque menace. Then charged and flea-bitten corpses are found. The press seizes on their plague-like symptoms, and the panic sets in.
Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand
Between 1943 and 2003 nine people have been stabbed to death with a most unusual weapon: a trident. In each case, arrests were made, suspects confessed their crimes and were sentenced to life in prison. But each presumed murderer lost consciousness during the night of the crime and has no recollection of it.
Commissaire Adamsberg is convinced all the murders are the work of one person, the terrifying Judge Fulgence. Years before, Adamsberg’s own brother had been the principal suspect in a similar case and avoided prison only thanks to Adamsberg’s help. History repeats itself when Adamsberg is accused of having savagely murdered a young woman he had met. To prove his innocence, he must go on the run from the Canadian police and find the judge himself.
This Night’s Foul Work
On the outskirts of Paris, two men have been found with their throats cut. In Normandy, two stags have been killed and their hearts cut out. Meanwhile a seventy-five-year-old nurse who has murdered several of her patients has escaped from prison. Is there a connection between the three cases?
In this mystery, Commissaire Adamsberg is pitted against nemeses past and present: Ariane Lagarde, France’s foremost pathologist and Adamsberg’s enemy since they argued over a case twenty-three years earlier, and Louis Veyrenc, a new recruit with a grudge, who has been assigned the job of protecting the Commissaire’s ex-girlfriend. As the different strands of Vargas’s compelling story begin to intertwine, events move towards a gripping climax…
An Uncertain Place
Commissaire Adamsberg has left Paris for a police conference in London, accompanied by anglophile Commandant Danglard and Estalere, a young sergeant. The city offers a welcome change of scenery until a gruesome discovery is made – just outside the gates of Highgate Cemetery a pile of shoes, all containing severed feet, is found.
Returning to Paris, the three men are then confronted with the violent killing and dismemberment of a wealthy, elderly man. Both the dead man’s son and gardener have motives for murder, but soon another candidate for the killing emerges. As Adamsberg investigates the links between these two unsettling crimes, he puts himself at terrible risk.
The Ghost Riders of Ordebec
‘People will die,’ says the panic-stricken woman outside police headquarters. She refuses to speak to anyone besides Commissaire Adamsberg. Her daughter has seen a vision: ghostly horsemen who target the most nefarious characters in Normandy. Since the middle ages there have been stories of murderers, rapists, those with serious crimes on their conscience, meeting a grisly end following a visitation by the riders.
Soon after the young woman’s vision a notoriously vicious and cruel man disappears. Although the case is far outside his jurisdiction, Adamsberg agrees to investigate the strange happenings in a village terrorised by wild rumours and ancient feuds.
A Climate of Fear
A woman is found murdered in her bathtub, and the murder made to look like a suicide. A strange symbol is found near the body. Then a second victim is discovered, who was also part of a group of tourists on a doomed expedition to Iceland ten years earlier.
How are these deaths, and rumours of an Icelandic demon, linked to the secretive Association for the Study of the Writings of Maximilien Robespierre? And what does the mysterious symbol signify? Commissaire Adamsberg is about to find out.
How many of the books in the Commissaire Adamsberg series have you read? Let us know in the comments below!
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