Penguin Books, 416 pages, $16
Translated by Siân Reynolds
Canadian author Louise Penny’s Three Pines series began in 2005 to much acclaim. Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series was begun in 1990 in its original French. It was not translated into English until 2009, according to stopyourekillingme.com. I had to check because there is much similarity in tone, character, and eccentricity between the two series.
I’ve read more Penny than Vargas books. Both series have grown since their inception into full-bodied works. Each series leans heavily on character and repetition.
Adamsberg operates in Paris with his squad of quirky, sometimes emotionally volatile fellow detectives. It is strange that Adamsberg is the leader. He is vague, not organized, not articulate (speaking mostly in zen-like koans). He has bubbles that float around in his head, tantalizing him with what feel to be break-through thoughts, but they mostly avoid surfacing in a timely fashion. It is a wonder he solves anything at all. But that is his saving grace: He does solve the puzzles using intuition, experience, and bubbles.
In “This Poison Will Remain,” the seventh book in the series, Adamsberg first appears in Iceland. He is floating in an agreeable stupor. He has learned a few words in the native lingo, made a friend or two, solved a mystery — off camera, or rather in the last book — and has only vague plans about returning to work. An urgent message sent to him by his office about a woman who has been run over twice eventually gets to him and lifts his fog slightly, just enough to force his return.
This is an aside. The reason the message did not find Adamsberg quicker is because he lost his phone. “Lost” is the wrong word, because he knew exactly where his phone was:
His mobile phone had fallen into some sheep dung, and the ewe had trodden it firmly in with its hoof, no malice intended. That was a novel way to lose your phone, and Adamsberg had appreciated it as such.
After the brief appearance of Iceland in the story, we hear almost nothing more about that. Instead, Adamsberg goes about solving the riddle of who would run over the harmless wife of a lawyer. He is still in his fog, has only incompletely registered the information sent him by his office, and begins a wavy course of investigation. Once that case has been dispensed with, Adamsberg’s ship sails away on a course of its own.
There is something peculiar about the recluse spider. The recluse is supposedly a shy creature and loathe to actually bite people. So why, all of a sudden, are people dropping dead from their bite, a rather painful process. Certainly, one or two deaths a year, maybe five, but several within only a couple of months? Is someone using the small arachnid to murder people? When Adamsberg probes the deaths and then obliquely brings the subject of murder to the attention of his team, there is muttering of how generally unsound such an accusation seems.
Danglard, a brilliant member of the team, is especially dour about the chances of proving a case of murder and questions his boss’ acuity, even threatening to take his qualms to a higher level. How odd! Danglard is usually a staunch comrade, even though Adamsberg’s methods leave him mystified.
Added to what seems like a hare-brained quest, Adamsberg is feeling strangely uneasy about this particular spider. It gives him the heebie-jeebies and he has a strong physical response when its name is mentioned. To the best of his knowledge, there is no basis for his uneasiness; he has never been bitten, never known anyone who has, and cannot place this particular spider anywhere in his life.
There is meandering. There is anguish. There is a slightly addled woman who keeps apologizing for swearing. There is a brother who is actually quite logical. There is a camp-out under the stars. There is a reckoning with the past. Victims of spider bites continue to pile up. But how on earth could they be murder victims? It would take a huge amount of venom or an unusual sensitivity on the part of the victim to actually kill someone. And now there are many someones.
Adamsberg plumbs his psyche, searches out experts, and takes advantage of a chance meeting with a stranger to sort it all out. I can’t say it was an ideal mystery. I can say it was a bit of far-fetching, but that is what I assume about Vargas’ books: Expect the unexpected and the extraordinary.
If you like having main characters who have a mission to straighten out the world, an unyielding responsibility, in fact, and a peculiar insight into human motivations, then you are welcome to Adamsberg’s world.
Should you read them in order? It wouldn’t hurt. I enjoyed “The Chalk Circle Man,” the first in the series. I confess the oddness of “This Poison Will Remain” charms me, but a small slice of odd-pie will last me a long time.