Wednesday, June 18, 2014

a beyond dynamic duo by Fred Vargas: The Three Evangelists and Dog Will Have His Day

Fred Vargas is already of one my favorite French crime writers with her Adamsberg series, and now I've discovered her Three Evangelists novels. Like the Adamsberg novels, they're filled with very quirky characters, they're humorous in a very wry sort of way,  and they have a whodunit at their respective cores that needs solving.  And also like the books in the Adamsberg series, they're fun.  The Three Evangelists and Dog Will Have His Day are great summer reads and very welcome additions to my ever-growing library of French crime.

First up - where it all began -

The Three Evangelists, by Fred Vargas
Vintage UK, 2006
292 pp
originally published as Debout les morts, 1995
translated by Sian Reynolds
(bought from the UK)

Former opera star Sophia Siméonidis is staring out of her window one morning while sitting with her newspaper-reading husband Pierre, and notices a tree in her yard where there wasn't one before. She knows the gardener didn't plant it; he'd been gone for a couple of months and Sophia never replaced him. She tells her husband that the tree frightens her -- she has a good sense that something is just not right. While Pierre tries to convince her otherwise, Sophia can't shake her feeling. So, a month after three down on their luck, out of work academics (Marc, Lucien, and Mathias) move in to the "disgrace" (the house) next door,  with Marc's godfather Armand Vandoosler, she offers them money to dig it up. She just wants to see if there's anything beneath it. They find nothing, and go on about their business. Marc also takes a job at a nearby cafe owned by another neighbor, so he is there working when, for the first time in years, Sophia doesn't show up for her regular Thursday lunch. As time passes and still no Sophia, her husband doesn't seem to be too worried, and as our heroes remember the tree incident, the four men decide that it's time to start looking for her. 

In The Three Evangelists, it is Vargas'  characters that stand out above all else. The "Three Evangelists" of the title are so called because Vandoosler has nicknamed the three academics St. Matthew, St. Mark, and St. Luke, and sometimes refers to them as "the time detectives."  All four live on separate floors of the house. Mathias likes to go around naked, a prehistorian "hostile to anything that had occurred since 10,000 BC."  Marc, Vandoosler's nephew and godson, is a medieval historian, and Lucien works on the history of World War I. Vandoosler himself is an ex-cop, a "commissaire in criminal justice," and "dismissed with dishonour" after twenty-eight years for letting a murderer escape. But, as his nephew notes, "he's still a flic," and he also maintains contacts with his former colleagues. Together they are among the quirkiest group of characters I've ever encountered.  The mystery is a good one as well -- once Sophia disappears and the "time detectives" start looking into things, they uncover a whole slew of people who might want Sophia out of the way for various reasons.   It is an old-fashioned whodunit that is surrounded on all sides by character quirkiness, humor, and small little details that will give armchair detectives a run for their money.   

 Dog Will Have His Day is the follow-up novel to The Three Evangelists, with a new main character who is as

Harvill Secker, 2014
244 p
originally published as Un peu plus loin sur la droite, 1996
translated by Sian Reynolds

from the UK

delightfully offbeat as the four in the previous book. This is Ludwig Kehlweiler, who goes by Louis, Ludwig, or  Louis-Ludwig, a former cop and "free electron -- needed, hated, indispensable, and highly paid" by the Ministry. Now they are "getting rid of him, they distrusted him: with reason," perhaps because he keeps notes and records of people and old cases. Louis still has connections to people in high places and to other cops.  He wrecked his knee under hazy circumstances he changes in the telling.  He is also known to some as "The German," born in 1945 to a German father and a French mother. Dad is still living somewhere across the Rhine, but Louis doesn't talk much about his own origins. He  lost his girlfriend when she  walked out on him after only five months of living together. He also has a pet toad named Bufo, who goes where Louis goes, often spending time in his pocket or cooling down in sinks under  faucets. Nowadays,  with the help of his friend Marthe, Louis keeps tabs on people. He has given every bench in the city of Paris a number, and he is currently keeping someone across from Bench 102 under surveillance with the help of a friend named Vincent and with an aging ex-prostitute named Marthe, who "had once been the most beautiful taxi girl on the Left Bank."

  It is during one of these surveillance jobs that the story begins, as Kehlweiler notices a white fragment of some sort near a tree next to Bench 102. It turns out to be a piece of a human bone that had been in a pile of washed-away dog poop.  On further analysis, it's the bone at the tip of a toe. The Paris police (headed by Adamsberg's replacement) don't have any answers, so Kehlweiler enlists the help of Marc Vandoosler (the St. Mark of The Three Evangelists) who is currently helping Kehlweiler maintain his archives of records.  After watching the newspapers, one case strikes their fancy: the case of an elderly woman who slipped off some rocks off of the Breton coast in a small town called Port-Nicolas. Marc thinks his friend Lucien (the St. Luke from The Three Evangelists) will also be of help.  The murder mystery is twisty, with a number of potential suspects and lots of red herrings -- but there's something else going on as well.  It seems that  Kehlweiler also has his own special agenda, one that like the murder's solution, will look back to the past  to bring order into the present.

There is a lot going on in this twisty puzzler of a whodunit, and like The Three Evangelists, Dog Will Have His Day consists of layer upon layer of eccentric characters and wry humor surrounding the central mystery.  I love Fred Vargas' books; with her,  I've come to expect some pretty good mysteries along with some quirky personalities who do or say things that make me laugh in the middle of a serious murder investigation.  Not everyone will get her humor, and more's the pity, because her books are so enjoyable, and moreover, they are definitely far off the beaten mainstream path, a quality I really enjoy in all of her novels.  She must have a blast creating these characters and these crazy plots -- and I have a blast reading them.  The only thing that made me unhappy with this book is that on the inside dustjacket cover blurb, it says "A Three Evangelists Novel," when really only a couple of the three are there and it's just not the same flavor as the original when they were all working together.

Both books are highly recommended, although I'd read The Three Evangelists prior to Dog Will Have His Day to get a good line on the characters.Have fun with these books -- I certainly did!

crime fiction from France


  1. I concur. I love Fred Vargas' quirky characters and plots and delicious wit. I've read all of the Adamsberg books and The Three Evangelists. Am waiting for Dog Will Have his Day to get to my library system, then I'll lock the door, turn off the phone and computer, make iced tea and read. No writer has a creative, quirky mind like the brilliant Vargas.

    1. I don't know how she comes with the stuff she does, but she's a riot.


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