Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

SUSPENSE: Original European sleuth deserves wider audience

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To the meagre list of truly iconic literary coppers (Dalgleish, Rebus, Morse, Maigret and a few others), surely the name of Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg must finally be added.

Why so, and why does his name and that of his creator, Fred Vargas (a pseudonym for French historian and archeologist Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau) probably not spring easily to mind?

After all, Vargas is France's pre-eminent crime writer. Nor is the barrier linguistic -- the Paris academic (with her superb translator, Sian Reynolds) has won the British Crime Writers' Association's International Dagger award for best non-English crime novel three times since 2006.

The likeliest explanation for Adamsberg's relative obscurity here, despite his popular stature across the continent, is that the ethereal Parisian flic is a bona fide and singularly European original, with few reference points in the annals of North American crime fiction.

Unlike most of his illustrious predecessors, he's yet to be portrayed on screen beyond a few French TV adaptions. That's not surprising, since his mentality and methods -- if they can be so termed -- are more than sufficiently obscure and enigmatic to resist cinematic translation.

Then, too, Vargas's quirky, cerebral, stream-of-Adamsberg-consciousness approach to admittedly bizarre cases has recently veered toward the surreal and vaguely fantastical -- shoes with severed feet discovered at a London cemetery preface something approaching a vampire tale in 2011's aptly named An Uncertain Place.

So Adamsberg has, to date, been something of a rarefied taste on this side of the pond, an anomaly that should be happily resolved with his eighth venture, The Ghost Riders of Ordebec (Harvill Secker, 362 pages, $23).

True, the opening vignette has a typical Adamsberg contemplation of bread crumbs revealing an old woman's apparent suicide to be murder (and unmasking the killer). And yes, his first move when a woman's visions of a medieval phantom army scooping up local villains in a Normandy village is to meander down a forest path, picking blackberries. Not to mention wandering barefoot through a wet meadow looking for a twig to use as a toothbrush.

But, while retaining Adamsberg's near-absurd idiosyncracies (and the more pedestrian oddities of his colleagues on the Serious Crime Squad), Vargas has embraced a more accessible, if equally convoluted and unpredictable, storyline. Her whimsical characterizations, imbued with a keen sense of irony, are universal, but do not threaten to float away.

It's far from a standard policier, but Ghost Riders is a clear and laudable attempt by Vargas to broaden, rather than baffle, her audience.

Short strokes

The Drowned Man, by David Whellams (ECW Press, $25, 264 pages): This sequel to the Ottawa lawyer's promising 2012 debut, Walking into the Ocean, finds semi-retired Chief Inspector Peter Cammon (with the aid of his amateur-sleuth daughter-in-law) reluctantly tracking the murder of a Scotland Yard colleague in Montreal. Purloined Civil War letters and a mysterious and deadly Indian Mata Hari spice up this engaging and competent whodunit.

Helsinki Blood, by James Thompson (Putnam, 320 pages, $29): A former Kentucky cracker (bouncer, bartender, etc), on a 12-year Finnish retreat, masquerades as a "Nordic crime writer" -- by making his bloody, thoroughly abhorrent band of dirty Helsinki cops think, talk and act American. Painful.

The Hit, by David Baldacci (Grand Central, 400 pages, $30): It's spy versus spy versus spies in yet another barnburner by this bestselling Virginia master of the conspiracy thriller. When a government assassin goes rogue, killing U.S. intelligence poobahs, fellow hitman Will Robie is called in to take her out. Of course, nothing is as it seems. A brisk though fairly predictable read that won't strain the brain cells.

Take Five, by Jack Batten (Thomas Allen, 256 pages, $17): It's been 20 years since Batten, prolific author and Toronto journalism's Jack-of-all-trades, retired his inexplicably mononymous lawyer/amateur sleuth Crang. Pray he'd left it that way. A clunky, rudimentary, faux-noir knock-off that should come with a built-in snooze alert.

John Sullivan is editor of the Free Press Autos, Homes and Travel sections and specialty websites.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 11, 2013 J9

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