Monday, 13 January 2014

A Girl Named Fred - Fred Vargas

Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau is not a man. She is a universally acclaimed historian and archaeologist. Fred Vargas is not a man either. She is a critically acclaimed writer of policiers or, as we of the English-speaking world would say, an author of crime fiction. 
Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau is Fred Vargas. She assumed that pseudonym when she started publishing her excellent, off the wall detective thrillers featuring the Zen-like Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg. The assumed surname is taken from the Ava Gardner character in the film The Barefoot Contessa whilst the 'Fred' is simply a diminutive of her real forename. All very interesting but do we care? Probably not. The books, though, oh boy, are they from somewhere else.
If music played whenever you opened the cover of a novel then the sound that accompanied the Adamsberg series would be 'Waltz in Black' by the Stranglers. The series is off-kilter, left-field, neither hard or soft boiled but scrambled. As detective fiction goes it sits equidistant  to Christie, Bonfiglioli, and Simenon. It truly defies the modern thriller genre and as it does spins off in new, refreshing, invigorating and highly inventive avenues.

Like the author the novels are as French as Notre Dame or, better still, those three words spoken on the TV ad - du vin du pain du boursin, They exude a Gaelic sensibility. They are unlike anything English or American but stand as a testament to the very core of being La Francaise. There are twists and surprises, false trails and more grande hering rouge than at the quayside of Cherbourg. More than anything there is that joie du vivre, that romance you only get from France. If it were a film then it would be directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. and would star Jamel Debbouze and Audrey Justine Tautou.


With utter disregard for the modern trend to feature the grim realism of Northern European cop thriller type books such as those by Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbo which lead the field of the contemporary genre, Fred Vargas displays a wanton way with stories that hook, bend the rules mischievously and then trundle along at their own deliberate pace. In their own way that is both stylish, entertaining and makes for a thoroughly good read. Characters are rich, warped, French, riddled with idiosyncrasies and yet totally believable. Not one of them has the leaden deliberateness of so many crime fiction books. There are no attempts at subterfuge, no pretense that police work is anything but monotonous, routine legwork. Then there is Adamsberg, a peripatetic commissaire  who divines the truth as much as he ignores method which in turn perplexes and annoys his number two, Adrien Danglard, an inspector, who prefers to work by the book. Then there is Adamsberg's lover, Camille Forestier: a musician and also a plumber whose turbulent relationship with the policeman is nothing if not testy. Rich characters with bent storylines lead to wonderfully interesting and highly inventive narratives.
The Three Evangelists are if it is possible, more extreme in their characterisation and plots.
The Three Evangelists are - Marc Vandoosler (Saint-Mark), Lucien Devernois (Saint Luke) and Matthias Delamarre (Saint Matthew_. All three are historians specialising in specific and different fields. There is also Armand Vandoosler, Marc's Godfather and former Commissaire and Ludwig Kehlweller who is also an ex-policeman and who  interestingly keeps a toad called Buffo. Such detail makes, as far as I am concerned, a more than half decent backdrop even before the story begins.

It is with this wayward, playful style that Fred Vargas reinvents such a staid genre. Much of her work - undertaken as by way of relaxation after fulfilling her day jobs priorities - utilizes her knowledge of history and archaeology to fuel her fictions.

Born in Paris in 1957, Fredérique writes more than fiction. Her work on the epidemiology of the Bubonic Plaque and Black Death are recognised as being definitive. She has worked at the French National Centre for Scientific Research but also the Institut Pasteur.
Her accolades extend into the realms of fiction writing. She was the first author to be shortlisted for  three consecutive and highly prestigious Duncan Lawrie International Award. She won the Crime Writers Association award three out of four years. This is not one of those awards given by members of the public but by the international community of crime writers - a case of your peers recognising a colleagues talent.
Jake Ketteridge of the Telegraph had this to say about 'Fred.'
"Her work is like a baked Camembert among the smorgasbord of chilly Scandinavian realism that dominates the foreign crime fiction market here, delicious comfort food for the sophisticated palate. This is no doubt why the British Crime Writers’ Association has awarded her its annual International Dagger three times since the prize was inaugurated in 2006."
Right said. Fred , the girl with the blokes name.
Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers and courts the weird, wonderful and beautifully beguiling.

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