Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Crime Series - Fred Vargas

I had earlier posted about my favorite crime fiction authors here. I then thought of expanding more on each author in separate posts as a series. The first author in this series is Fred Vargas. Vargas is indeed a unique writer. No, this is not a cliche that is being said to introduce a writer. Her works do not fall within any known sub-genre within crime fiction. It does not conform to your classical murder mystery, to the serial killer genre, or to the police procedural. She traverses a path that may adjoin these genres but is indeed a new path. Her main body of work could be split into two, one a series which features Chief inspector 'Adamsberg' which could be classified loosely as police investigative works and the other featuring 'The 'Three Evangelists' a group of 3 historians who solve mysteries, which could be loosely termed as amateur investigative novels.

The novels typically start of with a larger than life, sometimes supernatural premise or events. For instance, there could be a fear of werewolves, or a tree that has been planted overnight in the garden of a house or hints about ghosts, or some events  like cutting the hearts of deers that may point to cults The investigations then start leaning towards getting a rational explanation for the events while being bemused by the supernatural connotations. Towards the end the strands come together and the issue is resolved with a rational explanation. Interestingly, even with such bizarre suppositions initially in the novels, they are not as dark or brooding as they could have been. There is not much of gore or bloodshed and references to them are kept to a minimum. In fact there is a subtle thread of lightness undercurrent through the entire series, a feeling of adventure, which is generally not present in other series in this genre. 

In any series of novels, the main characters in them are as important as the story line itself if not more. Because the reader has to feel a certain connect with the characters so that he has the inclination to stay with them through the course of the series. If the characters are flat, then that inclination may not be there even though the plot itself may be good. In Vargas's case, both Adamsberg and the 3 historians are quirky characters who are quite fascinating. 

Adamsberg is not your typical police guy who has a tortured past and has to confront the ghosts from it while solving crimes. Yes he has some personal issues, but by and large it is not touched upon.  He is a guy who seems to have his head up in the clouds, but that is only a deception or rather a wrong perspective that the reader and indeed the other characters in the novels initially take. We get that impression from his actions like feeling intuitively that some darkness is coming  at the beginning of a novel or taking the pebbles from a stream and giving it to his team. But beneath all this is a cool, calculating mind which maintains its equanimity under all circumstances. He also has an on and off relationship with Camille who has also borne his child. Adamsberg team is also full of characters that you may not see in general.

The other series of the 'Three Evangelists'  also has interesting characters. There are 3 historians one specializing in prehistory, another in medieval history and the other in World war I. Needless to say each thinks that only their period of history is relevant and the others are redundant, leading to interesting interactions between the 3. There is also Vandoosler the uncle of one of the historians and a retired police man. This motley crew of unlikely investigators get involved in situations that they have to solve using their collective ingenuity. This series is more hilarious and less darker than Adamsberg, which itself is more lighthearted than others of this genre.

The strengths of the novels itself leads to a minor quibble I have with the series. Since Vargas invests so much in the settings, the quirkiness and the actual events, the principal characters come across as a bit under cooked. Having read several novels in the series, I could not find any significant growth of the characters. Yes there are several changes in their lives (like Adamsberg becoming a father), but these are not brought out in detail. Yes, I like works where I as a reader has to use my imagination to fill up the empty spaces a character's arc, but here there is actually nothing much for the reader to work on to use his imagination. Most of the characters remain an interesting enigma but as an one-dimensional one. The result being that though Vargas would be in my list of favorite crime fiction writers, Adamsberg or the Three Evangelists would probably not be on my list of top fictional crime busters. (like say a Wallander or Inspector Morse). 

For anyone interested in crime fiction with a quirky twist Vargas is a must read. Highly recommended. 

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