Fred Vargas is an interesting combination of very traditional and very – untraditional. Her set-up is traditional – Parisian Commissaire Adamsberg has a homicide squad that breaks down in traditional police novel form, with each character in the squad adding something to the story. But Adamsberg himself is extremely untraditional, with deductive methods that border on magical realism. In this novel, the story opens with an elderly woman struggling to the mailbox to mail a letter. Alas, she collapses before she can mail it, but a good Samaritan who helped her until an ambulance arrives later finds the letter in her pocket and mails it.
“Adamsberg put down his fork with care, acting cautiously as he did whenever a barely formed idea, the embryo of an idea, a tadpole of an idea, began slowly swimming up to the surface of his consciousness. At moments like this, he knew, you should not make a sound, because a tadpole will take fright and dive down to disappear forever.” – A Climate of Fear, Fred Vargas
A few days later the good Samaritan reads in the paper that the elderly woman has died and she’s disturbed enough to go and tell the police that she’s mailed the letter. The police, especially Adamsberg, aren’t quite convinced that the woman’s death is the suicide it appears to be, especially as they find a curious symbol written near the body, so they seize on the clue offered them by the woman, who remembers the address on the letter. As more bodies begin to appear with the same symbol written nearby, the case of the apparent suicide turns into a full-fledged murder investigation.
There are two threads to the story – an expedition to Iceland several years back which went horribly wrong – and the discovery of a Society for Robespierre, where the hundreds of members dress in revolutionary garb and recreate the speeches of the time. Adamsberg’s investigation style is not linear. He’s guided by feelings, small signs and his reading of human nature as he attempts to untangle what he thinks of to himself as a giant piece of seaweed with many tangled threads.
His squad are frequently confused by his investigative style but go along with is it as he gets results. The case takes him to the French countryside (where he meets, among others, an old lady who smokes a pipe and lives with a wild boar), Iceland, and deep into the Robespierre group as the police interview many of the members who all assume the personalities of the particular historical figure they portray. As an interesting aside, the members of the society are made to change parties now and then so they don’t become entrenched in their viewpoints – not a bad idea, it seems to me.
While this meticulous plot requires a great deal of set-up, the pay-off is well worth it, with the complex threads tying together nicely at the end. While the writing is lovely, I think the main joy of this particular series is Commissaire Adamsberg – a quirky, original mind who works in mysterious ways.