Simon and Schuster, 2006
originally published as L'homme a l'envers, 1999
translated by David Bellos
“Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.”Seeking Whom He May Devour is book number two in Fred Vargas' series featuring Commissaire Adamsberg of the French police nationale, following The Chalk-Circle Man. In 2005, it was nominated for the CWA Gold Dagger Award. This novel is another one which I'd label as "crime light," and actually reminds me a great deal of Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano series. There are a host of quirky characters, a bit of humor, a chief inspector who isn't anywhere close to what one would consider normal, and a lot of local color. Also like the Montalbano series, my sense is that these books aren't written to focus mainly on the crime elements or the police procedural aspects, but rather on the people who populate these novels.
The small village of Saint-Victor in The French Alps is the setting for this adventure, which begins with the report of the deaths of four sheep. This took place at Ventebrune, on Tuesday; on Thursday, nine more were found savaged at Pierrefort. As the number of dead sheep increases, the villagers begin to suspect that the culprit is a rogue wolf that roams the mountains. But after the savage death of Suzanne Rosselin -- the owner of the breeding station just west of Saint-Victor -- there are those who begin to suspect that perhaps it's something not of this world, and that the real killer is a werewolf. Suspicion falls on one Massart, who works in the municipal slaughterhouse, keeps to himself in his shack, and is rarely seen in the village. But what really makes some believe in Massart as a werewolf is the fact that he has no body hair. "Smooth-skinned as a choirboy," he fits the bill: the mark of the werewolf is that he wears his hair on the inside, and at night he "turns himself around and his hairy coat appears." This, as one person notes, makes him an "inside-out man," which reflects the original French title of this novel. After Suzanne's death Massart vanishes, leaving behind only a map with a specifically-marked route that includes the sites of the previous sheep slaughters. Convinced that it's their duty to go after Massart and rid the French countryside of this werewolf killer, two unlikely companions decide to go after him. First, there's Suzanne's adopted son Soliman, who had been found at the the village church as a baby. Soliman is black, and the villagers were a bit bewildered at seeing a black baby just left there, and it wasn't until Suzanne came along and picked him up that he was comforted. Suzanne had spent a great deal of time teaching Soliman about his African roots, and Soliman is constantly spouting often unfathomable African legends to apply to various situations. Second is old Watchee, Suzanne's shepherd at the breeding station. And to drive the old (and very stinky) cattle truck, Soliman and Watchee recruit Camille, the elusive, on-again/off-again love of Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg's life, who is now living in the village, composing music for a soap opera and working as a plumber. Her current love interest is a Canadian scientist who studies wolves in the wild, currently in the Mercantour National Park in France, near the village. As the strange trio sets out on the road, there are even more deaths, and they begin to realize that this project is beyond them. They need to find some help ...a
special sort of policeman. A very special flic. A flic who'd pass on all the info about giving us any grief, and who'd let us carry on tracking the vampire down.And as it just so happens, Camille knows just the guy -- Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, in Paris, at the police headquarters in the fifth arrondissement.
While the mystery itself is a bit predictable, it's not really the who that counts, but rather the getting there that makes this story. Adamsberg is no ordinary cop -- he deals quite a bit in intuition, has his senses alert to odd situations, and from time to time gets little insights out of the blue as to when things are important. He has a good rapport with his colleagues, although they find him a bit strange, and an even better rapport with the common man. The rest of the characters are quirky, as is the dialogue from time to time. If not laugh-out-loud funny at times, there is a great deal of humor interlaced with the serious business of finding a killer and bringing the culprit to justice. The author is really good at bringing out the sense of place, down to the hairpin curves on a French mountain road or the stink of sheep fat. In short, there are many things to experience within this novel, and it's obvious that Vargas really enjoys writing these books.
As I said earlier, this is a novel on the lighter side of crime, and so should appeal to readers who tend to stay away from more hardcore crime fiction. It's also a book for readers who enjoy quirky crimes, quirky people and a good laugh here and there, much (as also noted above) like the Salvo Montalbano series. Definitely recommended. I'm already on book #4 (Wash This Blood Clean From My Hands) on my way to the latest, An Uncertain Place, which is on this year's CWA International Dagger shortlist. You should probably read the series in order of publication, not English translation, because the whole Adamsberg/Camille relationship starts in book one and may be difficult to follow otherwise.
crime fiction from France