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Sunday, April 2, 2017

A Climate of Fear by Fred Vargas

Penguin Books, 416 pages, $16 (c2015, U.S. ed. 2017)
Translated from the French by Siân Reynolds

“A Climate of Fear” is the eighth novel in the Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg series. It is a most peculiar series, by Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau, an idiosyncratic and mesmerizing French author.

Adamsberg doesn’t precisely solve a crime. He intuits, metaphorizes, fabulizes, insinuates, and puts one foot in front of the other. How he rose to the elevated title of commissaire is the true mystery. He often does not have the support of his team, who are befuddled by his techniques. His true confidante is a Spanish neighbor with whom Adamsberg shares an occasional beer and who urinates against the tree in their shared courtyard, much to Adamsberg’s consternation.

“The Chalk Circle Man,” Vargas’ first book in the series, came out in 1990. It predates Louise Penny’s Three Pines mysteries by fifteen years, but these series share a sensibility that crosses the ocean from France to Quebec. The vulnerability of the characters is as important in the stories as the plot. Repetition of phrases and personal characteristics — in Vargas’ case, the formidable physical presence of Lieutenante Retancourt; in Penny’s, pseudo-misanthropic poet Ruth Zardo and her duck — and quirky side characters are also shared. This is not to say, however, that if you like one you will like the other. For the most part, the answer is yes. But in this case, the answer is no. In “A Climate of Fear,” there is a significant plot point which is not for tender eyes. Read with caution and an open mind. But even this difficulty is muted because of Vargas’ odd style and pacing.

Google Robespierre before you embark on this latest Adamsberg journey, unless you studied and remember him and the French Revolution. He has a lot to do with the story. This adds to the element of unreality Vargas brings to her books. There is a secretive Robespierre society for which many of its 700 members reenact many of the personages who brought about the Revolution and then finally the downfall of Robespierre. The many murder victims were all members of the society.

At first, Adamsberg and his team are waylaid by the fact that the first two victims met on a trip to a remote island off of Iceland ten years previously. A tragedy occurred then when two of the members of an impromptu expedition died. Even when the Robespierre connection comes to light, Adamsberg’s fascination with Iceland does not falter.

Having recently read a couple of books set in Iceland and being fond of authors such as Arnaldur Indridason and Yrsa Sigurdardottir, it was a pleasant surprise to see Iceland pop up as a plot point in Vargas’ book. As my immediate world emerges from a wet and cold winter, I unwarrantedly felt a patronizing attitude to the fictional characters living with the majesty/burden of cold, wet, snowy Iceland.

Vargas is an acquired taste, especially if you stop at her gate with the anticipation of a more conventional crime novel. I find her wry sensibilities, her unexpected characters, and her obfuscatorily meandering plots very refreshing.

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