Harvill Secker, 2011
originally published as Un lieu incertain, 2008
translated by Sian Reynolds
With the publication of An Uncertain Place, English-speaking readers have come to the last of Vargas' translated novels in the Adamsberg series. And it's probably a good thing to take a break from these novels right now, with the strange direction the stories are beginning to take. More on this topic later.
While in London for a conference, Adamsberg, Danglard and Scotland Yard's DCI Radstock are called to the entrance to Highgate Cemetery, where they come across a bizarre sight: eighteen shoes (nine pair) with seventeen feet inside of them. The feet and the shoes are all from dead people, and Radstock knows that this is going to be problematic. First, he's well on his way to retirement and second, the fact that the feet and shoes were found at Highgate Cemetery is going to open several old cans of worms based on events that had happened there previously. Adamsberg is captivated, of course, with the strangeness of it all. But while back in Paris, his attention is diverted (for a short while) by a most gruesome and ghastly murder, one where they can't recover the body, since, as Adamsberg explains to the victim's son:
The body's in pieces.... He was -- what word to use? chopped up? pulverised? -- cut into pieces and scattered round the room...there's nothing left to identify... We've collected what's left of him, by going ever square metre of the room and placing what we find in numbered containers. Fory-eight square metres, forty-eight containers.
It's not long until the police believe they've discovered a motive for the murder - the dead man left the bulk of his estate not to his son, but to the gardener. But, as usual, working on his intuition, Adamsberg is sure the gardener didn't do it. Eventually DNA and a second murder will prove him right, and the real killer is identified. His identity is published in the newspaper, giving him a chance to flee. But despite the identification, there are still a number of details that bug Adamsberg, and as he's investigating, he begins to realize that there are forces at work behind the scenes that wish to prevent the murder from being solved. He only has a few days to get to the bottom of things, and his work will eventually lead him to a village in Serbia populated by people who still believe in the old vampire legends. That's the bare-bones plot of this novel, but as usual, there are many other storylines that crop up and converge before it's all over.
Once again, Vargas has presented her readers with a highly unlikely and implausible plot, this time with gothic overtones and hints of the supernatural that take on a life of their own as the story progresses. And there are, as in her previous novel, also some highly unlikely moments that keep the reader on his or her toes trying to keep up with events. New people are introduced and some old ones return, some of whom link back to Adamsberg's past. I didn't guess the who; I did figure out the why early on -- the plot is quite obvious, but there are some red herrings to swim through to keep the reader occupied with all of the twists and turns that characterize this book.
I'm of two minds about this novel. First, as I noted above, it's probably a good time to put this series away for a while, because I'm not sure what prompted Vargas to take the direction she did in this novel (unless it's the paranormal fiction blitz of the last couple of years) and in the last, This Night's Foul Work. I can understand her wanting to have fun with her characters and with her readers, which is a good thing, but it seems that these last couple of books were way over the top in implausibility and plot, veering off into the realm of myth and legend. And the twists and turns of this novel really turned into meandering streams at times, a bit muddled and difficult to follow. As one commenter on another one of my Vargas posts wrote, it's highly likely Vargas wrote these books "tongue-in-cheek." I have the same impression, and it's fun for a while, but I need something different now, something more on solid footing as a novel of crime fiction. On the other hand, I must say that I liked this book a) for its rather odd characters and b) because I couldn't wait to get to the various plot elements coming together in a coherent link, my favorite part of any crime fiction story. But overall, I wasn't as fond of this one as some of her earlier ones -- putting aside the crime fiction element, to be really honest, it just didn't provide the entertainment factor I've been getting from the others.
An Uncertain Place isn't going to appeal to everyone, but regular readers will still find the characters they know and love, as well as a well-established sense of place no matter where Adamsberg and his colleagues find themselves. I'd recommend it, but certainly not as your first outing in the world of Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg and company.
crime fiction from France