Monday, July 11, 2011

An Uncertain Place, by Fred Vargas

Harvill Secker, 2011
originally published as Un lieu incertain, 2008
translated by Sian Reynolds
408 pp

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


  1. I could not get into this book really, either, though I did read to the end. It was the combination of supernatural plot (even though not a supernatural story, I'm not interested in the topic) and the unrealistic policemen who act like attitudes rather than people. But Vargas seems to be an acquired taste like an olive or marmite, love her or "don't really get what everyone is raving about". Adamsberg is a bit of a cold fish to Camille and his baby, I find that quite unlikeable.

  2. I did like this book, and I agree that it should not be a reader's first outing with Adamsberg and Danglard.

    However, as fantastic as the plot became, and as filled with Serbian folk lore and superstitions, the fact remains that Adamsberg did old-fashioned police work. He investigated everyone connected with the crimes, turned over every leaf, traveled to Serbia to follow the trail, and used deductive reasoning to solve the murders and all of the assorted crimes.

    I read an interview with Vargas a few days ago in which she said that she grew up reading myths and folk lore, and that she is very interested in what villagers in remote areas think. This is obvious.

    And, yes, I do think much of it is written tongue-in-cheek. I laughed many times while reading this book, and I smiled, and thought -- oh, this is what the writer is up to. I also thought that Vargas -- as smart as she is -- is playing with the reader, offering intellectual challenges and thoughts to ponder. And I did what she asked.

    Adamsberg is incompetent in his personal relationships. He has been this way in every book. He is flawed -- brilliant, but rumpled and incapable of figuring out what to do about his obligations to other people, other than his colleagues. I thought that Vargas was changing him as at the end of the book he is acting responsibly with his new-found relative.

    This book inspired me to reread a few of her other books.

    The only thing that bothered me at all is that I figured out the culprit early on, as someone shows up as a crucial moment and this was a plot device she used in a prior book.

    That said, I enjoyed the book. It is not for anyone who wants formulaic plots. One has to just go with wherever Vargas takes you. And this is not a book I'm loaning to all of my reader-friends. No. Only to a few who can just go with it and will enjoy the creativity.

  3. @Maxine and @kathyd: So sorry for the late reply date -- I just got home from the West Coast.

    With the earlier novels, it was sort of like reading the Camilleri books -- where I decided that the crime parts were doable but not the reason I read the books. I read the Montalbano books largely for the characters, and this was the case with the Adamsberg series. But I have to say that I'm not particularly fond of supernatural overtones in my crime fiction -- and I think this is what bothered me about this one. When her next one comes out in English, I'll be there -- no fear on that score!

  4. I'm not overly fond of supernatural overtones either in my mystery reading, and that's why I've avoided certain U.S.-published works.

    However, I do think that Adamsberg used logic and scientific investigation to uncover the culprit here. I don't think Vargas expected her readers to believe in the vampire craziness. She was using it as a plot device, saying the Serbian villagers believe in it.

    I laughed and grinned a lot reading this book. I kept thinking that Vargas was handing us humorous situations and lines, and saying to the readers that this is wholly humorous, isn't it?

    I will read Vargas' books because I think she is brilliant and creative and writes very well, and I don't want to miss out on this.

    I always think, "Fasten your seat belts and get ready for the roller-coaster ride that is Vargas."

    But I do understand the paranormal and supernatural issues. I won't read anything where that is "real" in the book, where the reader is supposed to believe any of it or where the detective uses anything but deductive reasoning and evidence to solve a crime.

    That said, I do appreciate everyone's individual reading preferences and taste. That is fascinating and interesting.

    I will loan this book to two friends that I can think of who have read other Vargas books. My other mystery reading friends, who haven't read Vargas, would be thrown by this book.

    However, I eagerly await the comments from the friends who read this book. It'll be interesting.


I don't care what you write, but do be nice about it