This is my review of Pars vite et reviens tard by Fred Vargas.
Like “L’Homme au Cercles Bleus”, the first in the series about the eccentric Inspector Adamsberg, suspicions are first aroused by the drawing around Paris of symbols with possibly criminal connotations, in this case a mirror image of a number “4” on apartment doors. Fred Vargas draws on her knowledge as a medieval archaeologist to develop what was for me one of the most intriguing aspects of the plot – that a criminal mind could exploit an enduring fear of the plague to cause havoc in a city. In fact, this proves not to be the main purpose of the exercise. I was also interested to learn how the plague has recurred over the years in France, although this was concealed by the French government as recently as the early C20, when the outbreak was referred to in internal correspondence as“No.9”.
Adamsberg’s quirkiness is often amusing, as when he is too busy to replace his lost shoes, so goes round in sandals to the dismay of an underling, who is reduced to blurting out, “But you’re the boss!” when questioned by Adamsberg as to why it matters.
Otherwise, the plot seems rather feeble to me, relying too much on Adamsberg’s implausible “light-bulb” intuitions, or the murderer obligingly writing a long letter at the end to explain the crime. In fact, the plot seems less important than the characters, although ironically those who prove to be responsible for the crimes are not as fully developed as they might have been.
Although the characters are often interesting I do not find them particularly convincing. Adamsberg would surely not have lasted long as a detective in real life. His girlfriend Camille may merely be passing through the novel to make more impact on another occasion, but is too thinly drawn , as an incongruous mixture of “free spirit” and supplier of Adamsberg’s sexual needs who runs away when she catches the selfish man “in flagrante” rather than give him a well-earned earful. I did not entirely believe in trawlerman turned “crier” of messages Le Guern either, but liked the storm of nautical references surrounding him: even the box for receiving messages was decorated to resemble a boat.
This was useful to read for the quality of the French – hence the choice of the text in French schools and helpful footnotes to define trickier words. The “argot” in the dialogue was also a challenge at times. But if I had read this in English, I think it would have left me underwhelmed.