And now for something completely different: The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, by Fred Vargas

October 13, 2013 at 10:52 pm (Book review, books, France, Mystery fiction, Uncategorized)

“The Ghost Riders of Ordebec” by Fred Vargas (Penguin).

“That night,” she said slowly, “Lina saw the Furious Army.”

“The what?”

“The Furious Army,” the woman repeated, in a whisper. “And Herbier was with them. And he was screaming. And three others with him.”

“Is it a club? Something to do with hunting?”

Madame Vendremot was staring at Adamsberg in disbelief.

“The Furious Army,” she whispered again. “The Great Hunt. The Ghost Riders. Haven’t you heard of them?”

“No,” said Adamsberg, staring back at her stupefied gaze. “Come back some other time and you can tell me all about it.”

“But you don’t even recognize the name? Hellequin’s Horde,” she whispered.

Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is baffled by this exchange. So was I. A tiny, nervous woman from Ordebec in Normandy has come to Paris expressly to see the Commissaire and warn him of the threat of sudden death for certain citizens of the town. Because of her sighting, Madame Vendremot’s daughter Lina knows who they are – all except one, that is. For his part, Adamsberg finds the purport of her message almost incomprehensible. Nevertheless, he decides to travel to Ordebec himself, to see the how the land lies.

I’ve known about the Commissaire Adamsberg series for quite some time. I knew they were highly thought of by  crime fiction cognoscenti. I tried several, but I couldn’t get into them. The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, though, was getting such enthusiastic reviews, I decided to try again. And this one worked for me – worked, in fact, extremely well.

Adamsberg is an unusual, rather enigmatic character. “I like the way his mind works,” Frances of Usual Suspects told me when she recommended the series. I do too. Flashes of insight can be succeeded – or preceded – with profound inertia. The Commissaire is a master of lateral thinking. Or rather, of thinking about anything but the crime he’s attempting to solve. The Ordebec investigation provides scope for his strangeness. He likes to sit outside beneath a tree munching on an apple, even when it’s raining. He uses up a fair amount of mental energy trying to figure out why the cows in a distant field seem never to move.

And he takes slow, solitary walks along the Chemin de Bonnival, in the forest of Alance. This is the place where Lina claims to have seen the Furious Army. Just what is this strange, threatening entity?

Adamsberg’s second in command is Adrien Danglard, a close friend as well as a valued colleague. At Adamsberg’s house one evening, Danglard, who takes a passionate interest in all things medieval, seeks to enlighten his boss on the subject of the Ghost Riders.

….this ancient cavalcade causing havoc in the countryside is damaged. The horses and their riders have no flesh and many of their limbs are missing. It’s an army of the dead, of the putrefied dead, an army of ghostly riders, wild-eyed and screaming, unable to get to heaven.

Danglard concludes this vivid description with two words: “Imagine that.”

The Commissaire struggles to do just that:

Adamsberg approached the fireplace again, curious to hear a little more, and leaned against the brick hearth. The fact that the Riders singled out unpunished villains interested him…. You can tell yourself you don’t believe this kind of thing, but it’s difficult not to believe it. The pernicious idea digs a deep channel. It silently infiltrates the the unavowed corridors of the mind, penetrates, and trickles through. You suppress the idea, it lies dormant for a while, then it returns.

The Furious Army, Hellequin’s Horde, the Ghost Riders, the Wild Hunt – it’s a legend of many names, with many manifestations. Most likely it originated in Scandinavia.

Even in Winter, you are not safe. Stay indoors, attend your hearths. Try to keep the night at bay by the telling of your tongue. Remember your kin, honor your ancestors. For at this time the dead begin to stir, riding upon hallowed and familiar roads, galloping through villages and wastes, flying through the forests of the mind. Such raids are reminders that the past is not a dead thing, but may return, like a hunter, to follow us for a time.

(The above excerpt is from an essay entitled “Penance, Power, and Pursuit – On the Trail of the Wild Hunt,” by Ari Berk and William Spytma.)

Adamsberg is strongly attracted to Lina – he claims that she “irradiated” him – but he makes no move toward her, and nothing comes of it. This is of a piece with the general tenor of a novel in which things seem to progress – if you can call it progress – in a halting, dreamy way, punctuated by episodes of high drama. It’s an extremely effective narrative style, especially with the author’s sly wit, reminiscent of Ruth Rendell, interspersed throughout.

And what of this author? Fred Vargas was born in Paris in 1957. She has trained as an historian and an archeologist. (Her real name is Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau.) And she has won the CWA International Dagger Award four times, in 2006 for The Three Evangelists, in 2007 for Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand, in 2009 for The Chalk Circle Man, and this year for The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, an honor given jointly to her and to Pierre Lemaitre for his novel Alex. (One is tempted to exclaim: “The French are coming, the French are coming; watch out, Scandinavians!”) A complete list pf Vargas’s novels can be found at Stop! You’re Killing Me.

While the Ordebec story moves forward – or sideways, depending on any number of things – other things are happening. Adamsberg’s twenty-eight year old son Armel, nicknamed Zerk, is currently living with him. This is a progeny whose existence was unknown to the Commissaire until a short while ago. Zerk is helping to care for a wounded pigeon. The bird’s misfortune was caused by a deliberate, cruel trick; father and son are determined to nurse it back to health. (And Adamsberg would dearly love to apprehend the responsible party.) Zerk also helps the Commissaire to  shield a hapless young man who is about to be framed for a murder he did not commit.

It’s desirable in a police procedural that the author include believable and interesting people in the protagonist’s team of investigators.  Team members can be characterized by their strengths, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies. Vargas is especially good at this (as is Peter Turnbull).

To sum up, I liked this novel very much. Vargas writes  beautifully, and credit must also go to the translator Sian Reynolds. I look forward to  the further adventures of Commissaire Adamsberg, the singular detective with an equally singular team.

Fred Vargas

Fred Vargas

3 Comments

  1. Angie Boyter said,

    As Monsieur Thormann would have said, “Chacun a son gout”. Roberta, this left me completely cold. I’m glad you liked it!

  2. Roberta Rood said,

    Chacun a son gout, indeed, Angie. Well, at least we agree about Peter Lovesey! (Ah,yes, Monsieur Thormann, I remember….)

  3. kathy d. said,

    Oh, gosh, so glad you liked this book. I loved it! I admit that I have liked all of the Commissaire Adamsberg books, but this one was special.
    When I finished it, I reluctantly turned the last page, knowing I’d miss Adamsberg, Danglard, Retancourt, the crazy family, Zerk, the pigeon, Leo, Flek, and Normandy. It took me a few weeks to move into another book and my big city environments.

    I have to say that Fred Vargas is so brilliant, and so creative — and quirky — that I just start reading and go with her on whatever journey she’s traveling on.

    I laughed out loud while reading, and smiled a great deal, talking with a friend who was simultaneously reading it in French. We exchanged favorite sections or quotes.

    I can’t wait for the next book in the series.

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