I do love to travel internationally, though these days, I generally do so mostly through books. Paris is definitely a favorite. I had a most memorable trip at age 16, when a good friend and I spent a month there on our own. Between her language skills (mine were limited) and my sense of direction (she had none) we managed to make our way around Paris and had the time of our young lives. Many evenings, we’d pick up a bottle of good inexpensive wine and somehow always managed to find a couple of cute guys to share it with us. I must say we certainly did have a grand time “learning” French….
Chatting with that friend recently, I was reminded just how much fun we did have back then. When I read a story set in Paris, I think of her and I can still hear her exasperated voice telling me in that dismissive tone just how French something was, whether it was a situation, place or person. Given that she is half French and her ex is French, I figure that’s allowed since I know how much she really does love it. She’s taught me well and because of her, I can generally tell if a book about Paris rings true. One of my favorite French crime series by Fred Vargas does just that.
A recent trip north up to Vancouver and the phone call with my old friend put me in an international state of mind. I made a meal of pâté, some cheese and a baguette, added a nice glass of wine and then cracked open the latest crime novel about Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, An Uncertain Place.
Now, if you’re looking for a traditional crime novel or the standard police procedural fare, a la CSI, well, this isn’t it. Adamsberg is a most unusual detective, and while I’m sure his department’s style is not typical of the real Parisian police, many things about him and his team are so very French, as Monica would say. He’s kind of spacey and distracted and he frequently goes off on odd intuitive tangents. His disheveled and sleepy appearance is such that many around him forget he’s there. This works to his advantage, because of course, he misses very little. Though there are often many forces against him, he and his team of misfits manage to solve the most unusual crimes and they generally do so in a very unusual way. Quirky is a good word to describe these novels.
His eccentric band of officers includes Danglard, his right hand man who has a fondness for good wine but still manages to have an extraordinary encyclopedic knowledge. Another is Betancourt, an Amazon of a woman who, while dismissed by some, has earned the respect of her boss with her extraordinary strength of mind and body. There’s even a cat named Snowball who lives within their headquarters. Don’t think he’s just there for a little ambiance; this cat’s paid his dues as well.
Adamsberg is a creation of French writer Fred Vargas, the pseudonym of the French Medieval historian Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau. She uses much of that knowledge throughout to add a little more depth to our stories. The first in the series is The Chalk Circle Man, though not the first translated to English, it is now available. My current book, An Uncertain Place, is the sixth of the series but there is another out for those who read French. Unfortunately, I’ll have to wait for the translated version.
In spite of my 5 years of French, about all I can remember are some words from a popular song, how to ask for the good wine, a few courtesy words and of course, how to find the bathroom. That gets me through most situations and for any others, I can point!
I’m off to discover how my French detective gets himself out of his latest jam. As I sit back in my comfy chair, I'm thinking that perhaps another glass of that nice pinot noir would help me and Adamsberg along…Voulez Vous?