22 June 2011

Review: AN UNCERTAIN PLACE, Fred Vargas

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Harvill Secker (May 2, 2011)
  • Language: English. Translated from French by Sian Reynolds.
  • ISBN-10: 9781846554452
  • ISBN-13: 978-1846554452
  • ASIN: 1846554454
  • Source: my local library
Note AN UNCERTAIN PLACE is also available for Kindle.

Product Description (Amazon)

Adamsberg travels to London, where a routine conference draws him into a disturbing investigation.

Commissaire Adamsberg leaves Paris for a three-day conference in London. With him are a young sergeant, Estalère, and Commandant Danglard, who is terrified at the idea of travelling beneath the Channel. It is the break they all need, until a macabre and brutal case comes to the attention of their colleague Radstock from New Scotland Yard.

Just outside the baroque and romantic old Highgate cemetery a pile of shoes is found. Not so strange in itself, but the shoes contain severed feet. As Scotland Yard's investigation begins, Adamsberg and his colleagues return home and are confronted with a massacre in a suburban home. Adamsberg and Danglard are drawn in to a trail of vampires and vampire-hunters that leads them all the way to Serbia, a place where the old certainties no longer apply.

My take:

As Chief of the Serious Crimes Squad in Paris, Commissaire Adamsberg is obliged to attend the 3 day conference in London about controlling migratory flows in Europe. As he doesn't speak English, he is rather hoping to be able to tune out of most of the discussion. He knows his deputy Commandant Danglard, who has an excellent grasp of English, will tell him the most important bits anyway.

Danglard makes several friends at the conference and through one of them, DCI Radstock of New Scotland Yard, he and Adamsberg are treated to the amazing sight of a collection of pairs of shoes (containing feet) at the entrance to Highgate Cemetery. Some of the shoes are ancient, while others more modern, and to his dismay Danglard thinks he recognises one of the pairs. It certainly seems as if most of the shoes may be of European origin.

When Adamsberg and his team return to Paris they are confronted with the very grisly case in which a body has been
    "chopped up, pulverised, scattered. Wherever you look, you see parts of it, and when you see it all, you can't see any of it. There's nothing but the body, but the body isn't there.
    ...This old man wasn't just killed, he was reduced to nothingness. He didn't have his life taken, he was literally demolished, wiped out."
Adamsberg's team's hunt for the killer sends them looking for relatives of the victim, to trying to understand why the victim did not leave his estate to his own son but to his part-time gardener, and then by chance, to the discovery that a distant relative has been killed in a similar fashion. Adamsberg himself eventually ends up in Serbia, in a village, where nearly 3 centuries before, at least two families were thought to be vampires. And there too he unearths the connection with Highgate Cemetery.

But there is something else going on too. Someone in high places is calling in favours, and a member of his own team is subverted in an attempt to have Adamsberg discredited and dismissed, and his investigation cancelled. So Adamsberg know he is getting too close to the truth. But which truth and just who is it that is pulling the strings?

One of the tricks in a Vargas novel is to work out what is the really important information and to retain that so that eventually your brain will make the connections. I wondered several times where AN UNCERTAIN PLACE was headed, and whether either I or Vargas had "lost the plot".
As Norman says on Crime Scraps
    this novel is designed to be read slowly because you won't want it to end; the literary equivalent of slow cooking, or sipping a fine whisky or wine. A tasty French bouillabaisse of a novel to be enjoyed and savoured by gourmets of crime fiction.
Not everybody will enjoy AN UNCERTAIN PLACE. I did find myself wondering what had been the trigger for Vargas in writing this novel.
For some Adamsberg and his team will be just too peculiar, the idea that events in London, Paris and Serbia could be connected will be just too much of a stretch, and the murders themselves will be just too grisly.

But for me, in the end, Vargas pulled it off. It is a novel that just can't be finished and put aside. The reader needs to reflect to see how finely Vargas connected the threads.

My rating: 4.8

About the author
Fred Vargas is the pen name of Frederique Audoin-Rouzeau, a medieval historian and archaeologist, who has along with translator Sian Reynolds won the CWA International Dagger three times.

At CrimeFest on May 20 AN UNCERTAIN PLACE by Fred Vargas, translated by Siân Reynolds (Harvill Secker) was announced as one of the nominations for the shortlist for the Crime Writers’ Association’s International Dagger. (The winner of the CWA International Dagger will be announced at the CWA Daggers awards ceremony at the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, Harrogate on Friday, 22 July.)

Fred Vargas has won this particular award in 2006, 2007, and 2009, and must be a hot favourite again.
AN UNCERTAIN PLACE is a clear leader in the unofficial poll being held on EuroCrime. 

Check the links between Highgate Cemetery and vampires on Wikipedia.

Other Reviews to check

Other Vargas novels reviewed on this blog:


Anonymous said...

Kerrie - Thanks for this thorough and well-done review. Vargas seems to be one of those authors one either really likes or really doesn't like. I give her credit for not being "cookie cutter" about her writing. I confess I haven't read this particular novel yet, but I do respect authors who develop a unique style.

Bernadette said...

Glad you enjoyed it Kerrie. As you know Vargas is not really my cup of tea but that's life - I do agree it had to be finished though - even though I wasn't really enjoying it I did want to know how it would all be wrapped up

kathy d. said...

So glad you liked An Uncertain Place.

I like Fred Vargas' writing very much and have read everything translated and available in the U.S., and am awaiting this one to reach me.

I do agree her books are like fine desserts to be savored one sentence at a time, and then thought about later.

I enjoy the varying opinions by readers. That the books incite very different reactions shows we're all alert and thinking as we read.

Individual preferences and taste in books is fascinating as it is in all forms of art.

I purchased this book (my library doesn't have it in English yet), largely so I can pass it around to friends and hear their reactions. Some will love it, some not, as on the blogosphere.

Anonymous said...

Kerrie, I'm glad you like it. Thanks for the reference.

Anonymous said...

Just wrote about "An Uncertain Place" by Fred Vargas: http://ratemybooks.com/2011/an-uncertain-place-by-fred-vargas/

Put a french interview up with Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau (Fred Vargas) as well!!


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