‘An Uncertain Place,’ by Fred Vargas

November 6, 2011

Fred Vargas is the pen name of a prolific, prize-winning French novelist otherwise known as Frederique Audoin-Rouzeau. Vargas began her career as a medieval historian and archaeologist, which perhaps accounts for the ironic distance from which she views the misadventures of our species. She has now published 16 , most of them policiers, or police thrillers, featuring Paris Commissioner Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg. Although Vargas is hugely popular in Europe, she remains relatively unknown in the United States, a discrepancy I must attribute to the high degree of intelligence, sophistication and perversity that informs her fiction. Perhaps it will help that this exceedingly strange novel, “An Uncertain Place,” delves deeply into the world of vampires, increasingly beloved creatures in our popular culture.

In the novel’s opening lines, Adamsberg is ironing his shirt — something no other cop has done in the hundreds of crime novels I’ve read — and preparing to leave for a conference in London. He is delayed by his neighbor, an elderly, one-armed Spaniard who insists that the policeman help his cat give birth to kittens. (Another first.)

In time, Adamsberg and two underlings arrive in London, where one evening they encounter the eccentric Lord Clyde-Fox (“When his mother died, two years ago, he tried to eat a whole box of photos of her”). Clyde-Fox urges the policemen to hasten to Highgate Cemetery, where, as you may know, Karl Marx and other notables are buried and where there have long been rumors of ghosts, vampires and sinister deeds — “a place where madness lurks.” Upon arrival at the cemetery, the guardians of the law find 17 shoes lined up with the remains of human feet and ankles inside them.

On the train ride back to Paris, in addition to pondering the severed feet and worrying that the Chunnel may collapse and kill them all, the French lawmen debate the morality of a young man who killed the bear that ate his uncle, then skinned the bear and took it home to his widowed aunt, who displayed it on her sitting-room floor. As the novel progresses, the words “inside the bear” take on the same significance that such phrases as “up the creek without a paddle” hold in our own culture. To be inside the bear is a horrid fate, and one that might befall us all.

Back home, Adamsberg and his squad are confronted by a new outrage: someone has murdered a man in a Paris suburb and used a chain saw and a hammer to chop him into 432 pieces hardly bigger than jelly beans. Who would do such a thing? And what might the strange events in London have to do with this horrible crime in Paris? For they are, of course, connected.

Adamsberg, a whimsical fellow whose underlings credit him with “eloquent leaps of intuition,” soon has two suspects in the case: the victim’s estranged son and a violent handyman, both of whom hoped to inherit the man’s wealth. But it’s not that simple. A second man has been pulverized near Vienna. Then a young man turns up who claims to be Adamsberg’s son and — despite, or perhaps because of, that fact — is intent on killing his newfound dad. In another complication, a member of Adamsberg’s staff may be trying to frame him for the first murder.

Adamsberg’s investigation takes him to a village in Serbia, where he visits the grave of a man who died in 1725 and was widely hated and feared as a vampire. The commissioner comes to suspect that the murders are tied to a feud between two clans of vampires that, for nearly 300 years, have been trying to exterminate one another. One of the best ways to kill a vampire, it seems, is to cut him into so many pieces that he can’t possibly be reconstituted. It is also helpful to cut off a vampire’s feet, which carries us back to those feet outside Highgate Cemetery.

The novel’s mad carnival of a plot is bewilderingly complex. At times it seems that Vargas has her tongue firmly in her cheek as one outlandish development follows another. And yet, even as I felt lost in her maze, I continued to be delighted by the workings of her imagination. It’s a tangled web she weaves, and a hard one to escape. And, it must be said, all the pieces more or less fit together in the end. The novel is not for everyone, but, if you venture into it, you’ll wind up thinking you’ve never read anything remotely like it.

Anderson regularly reviews mysteries for Book World.

AN UNCERTAIN PLACE

By Fred Vargas

Translated from the French by Sian Reynolds

Penguin. 408 pp. Paperback, $15

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