Sunday, September 1, 2013

Seeking Whom He May Devour: Fred Vargas

I have read two books in the Commissaire Adamsberg series by Fred Vargas, and I had two vastly different reactions.  When I read The Chalk Circle Man (the first book in the series), I was disappointed. The book did not seem to be about much, and Adamsberg seemed to spend all of his time ignoring his coworkers findings and waiting to have his intuition proved correct. [Keep in mind that I read this two years ago and my memory of events in the book may be prejudiced by time.] Adamsberg did prove that his intuition was right and he did solve the crime, but I did not enjoy the book.

Now I have read the second book in the series, Seeking Whom He May Devour, and I have a very different reaction to that one. There are differences. The first book was set in Paris; this book is set in the French Alps. In the first two thirds of the book, the story centers on a group of people residing in the French Alps who are on a quest to stop a murderer, and we only get glimpses of Adamsberg now and then. Adamsberg is functioning as a policeman in this book, but his involvement is also personal.

Excerpts from the plot summary at Goodreads:
A small mountain community in the French Alps is roused to terror when they awaken each morning to find yet another of their sheep with its throat torn out. One of the villagers thinks it might be a werewolf, and when she's found killed in the same manner, people begin to wonder if she might have been right. Suspicion falls on Massart, a loner living on the edge of town.

The murdered woman's adopted son, one of her shepherds, and her new friend Camille decide to pursue Massart, who has conveniently disappeared.
The local authorities have ignored suggestions that Massart is either a werewolf or a man with a wolf who is killing sheep and humans. As Camille and her motley crew pursue Massart through the Alps, the killings continue. Eventually Camille decides she must call on Commissaire Adamsberg of Paris. They have a history and she does not want to see him, but she feels she must ask for his help.

For most of this book, the story seems more fantasy than real. But in the end, there is a real solution that makes sense. Reading the book and accepting the story takes some suspension of disbelief. However, for me, the writing style and the story were compelling, and I read this less for the mystery, more for the story of the unusual band traveling together with a common goal.

Other positive aspects of this book are the two maps at the beginning. I love books with maps. And I learned a little more about France and the French Alps.

There were hints of Camille's past relationship with Adamsberg in The Chalk Circle, but in neither book do we get much of their history. It is clear that they both feel strongly for each other, and it is left at that.

I will continue this series, if only to determine if this was a fluke for me, and the rest of the books will be more like the first book. On the other hand, I suspect that if I had read other books in the series first, I would have approached The Chalk Circle with a different mindset. The books were translated into English out of order, so many readers probably read The Chalk Circle after reading other books in the series.

These are words that are often used to describe this series and Commissaire Adamsberg: quirky, eccentric, unorthodox, bizarre, grotesque. Whether or not that type of mystery normally appeals to you, I would recommend trying this series just to give it a taste and see if it is for you. The problem is, I am not sure which book is a good place to start. And it may depend on the reader. I saw many comments on Goodreads indicating that readers loved the first book and hated Seeking Whom He May Devour. And vice versa.

Fred Vargas is the pseudonym of Frédérique Audouin-Rouzeau. In addition to writing, she is a historian and archaeologist. The books in this series have been translated by Sian Reynolds. Author and translator have won four International Daggers awarded by the CWA.

Other reviews:
A very positive review of Seeking Whom He May Devour at Mysteries in Paradise.

A review of The Ghost Riders of Ordebec (the most recent book) with a list of the books in order of publication at Crime Scraps Review.

More reviews of The Ghost Riders of Ordebec at Crimepieces and Ms. Wordopolis Reads.

Submitted for the Alphabet in Crime Fiction for the letter V. This community meme is hosted by Mysteries In Paradise.

Also for the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril VIII event, hosted by Stainless Steel Droppings. Reviews for that event are here.


40 comments:

  1. I love the books of Fred Vargas! There's no-one like her - she is a treasure! The first one I read is actually a stand-alone, The Three Evangelists,and it led me to the Adamsberg series. His relationship with Camille is indeed mysterious, and seems to be over by the time of the latest, The Ghost Riders of Ordebec. As to which books I liked best, perhaps I'd choose Wash this Blood Clean from my Hands, and then Have Mercy on us All.

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    1. Anne, thanks for the suggestions. Have Mercy On Us All is the next one, I will try to find a copy to read soon.

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  2. I love the cover and I love the setting of this one, so I may have to give it a go.

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    1. Ryan, this author is definitely worth trying. The book has a dreamy, unworldly feel which is usually not what I look for in a mystery, but really interesting characters. And setting.

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  3. This was the first of Vargas' books that I read and I loved it. I was hooked by the title and the cover before I even started the story :) I think I have one on my shelves that I haven't read before, maybe that'll be my first RIP read for this year :)

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    1. Fence, I thought this Vargas book was a perfect read for RIP. So I am glad it was next up on my list to read.

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  4. Tracy - Isn't it interesting how or views of two different books can vastly different, even if those books are by the same author. I'm going to admit I like Vargas' work, so I'm biased. That said, I'm very glad you liked this one better than The Chalk Circle Man, and I hope you'll carry on with the series. As I said, I'm biased...

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    1. Margot, I was very surprised to find this book so different from the first one. I have also found that sometimes it takes a book or two to adjust to the author's style. I have This Night's Foul Work, but I want to find one of next two before I read that one.

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  5. Thanks for this review, Tracy! I've heard such great things about Fred Vargas's books but like you, was disappointed by The Chalk Circle Man. You've encouraged me to give this author another try.

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    1. Debra, this author is worth another try. This novel was still very different from any mysteries I have read, but the writing is great.

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  6. A couple of my friends have just recently reviewed Vargas, a new author to me and this one sounds very intriguing for sure and perfect for RIP!

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    1. Peggy, I hope you do read one of her books. I want to see what you think of it.

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  7. Interesting how you had two very different reactions to the first two books. Given that it sounds like your first experience wasn't fantastic, I'm surprised you went on with the next. Is this an author you've heard a lot of good things about or what is compelling you onwards?

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    1. Carl, I had read a lot of good reviews from bloggers who usually like similar things to what I read. Plus I still had two books by the author, that I had bought at a sale. However, readers can be very divided on her books. They are very different (from your average mystery).

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  8. I just finished The Chalk Circle Man recently and was disappointed that I didn't like it as much as The Three Evangelists. I'm pleased to read that you found this one to be more enjoyable as I was thinking about giving up on this series.

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    1. Katrina, I just saw your review and commented there. I did really enjoy this book, and hope that my next experience is as good.

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  9. Thanks, sorry to be nosy but was just really curious about why you were continuing on.

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    1. No problem, Carl. I also think that some books I read would strike me in a more positive light at another time in my life or another reading mood, so I wanted to give the author one more try. This one (and others in the series, from what I read) almost had elements to make it suitable for the Once Upon a Time challenge, with references to myth and folklore.

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  10. By my count The Chalk Circle Man was actually the sixth Vargas to appear in English, at least in Australia. This is probably because it is weaker than the others, but as part of a series deserved to be available to readers! Just not as the first one on offer.
    Speaking for myself, if I have mixed feelings about a writer I expected to like, I tend to give them a second chance.

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    1. Anne, I have a huge list of authors where I have read the first book in a series, have the 2nd book, and haven't continued on to the 2nd book just because of lack of time. (Poor planning on my part.) I am glad I saw all the reviews on this book, which pushed me to try a 2nd Fred Vargas book.

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  11. Thanks very much TracyK - I shall take your comments about the first book especially to heart as I just bought that one - I shall tread with caution not let it put me off!

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    1. Sergio, you have a higher tolerance (or acceptance?) for non-standard mysteries than I do. There is a good chance that you will really like this author's style.

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  12. The divisiveness for this author's work is quite apparent. I started with The Three Evangelists and enjoyed it well enough to try another one of books. I am reading off/on again Wash This Clean Blood From My Hand (I'm almost finished! but am reading something else). Her books are...different. Premises seems implausible bordering on the ridiculous. Her books don't move fast either. Saying all of that, I still try to read her. She has a style all her own. If I ever finish her book, better believe I worked hard to do so.

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    1. Whoops, the title should be Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand. Oy.

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    2. I like that statement: "Premises seems implausible bordering on the ridiculous." Very true. Yet she writes beautifully.

      By the way, I am currently reading McDead in the White Trilogy by Bruen. And loving it.

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  13. re McDead, can't wait to hear what you have to say about these books!

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  14. Tracy, I have a few Vargas on the pile. I'm not sure if this is one of them. Needless to say I have read any yet! Someday soon.

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    1. Col, I will be waiting to hear what you think about her books. As Keishon said, her style is unique.

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  15. Fascinating, Tracy, more so since it's a new author for me and a book whose title holds a lot of promise. This type of mystery series does agree with me.

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  16. Prashant, I think you would like these books. I love the titles of the books too.

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  17. I have read a couple of her books, and liked them very much, though not enough to track down all her others. I will stand warned on the one you didn't like!

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    1. Moira, another case of too many books. I will try one more myself and see what I think. Very interesting author.

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  18. I love Fred Vargas' books, her writing, imagination, quirkiness. No one writes like she does. Her books are the opposite of formulas.

    That said, The Chalk Circle Man was not a favorite. I read it after having read others, and found it a bit confusing, yet clever.

    I first read The Three Evangelists, which I liked, and then I read Seeking Whom He May Devour, which made me sit up and take notice that Vargas is a unique writer and a genius. Since then, I've read all of her Adamsberg books, and cannot put them down.

    The most recent book The Ghost Riders of Ordebec is a 5 out of 5; it is a brilliant book with unforgettable characters, not only the police team, but a Normandy family of eccentrics. I was reluctant to turn the last page, leaving them all and a pigeon and dog, as well as Normandy.

    Readers are divided on Vargas, however, I have some friends who love her writing as much as I do. Whatever her fantastic premises,
    Adamsberg's solutions are based on investigations, evidence, interviews with suspects, logic -- i.e., science and deduction.

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    1. Kathy, I do remember that you are a big Vargas fan. Which helped to convince me to give this author a second try. Looks like I will enjoy The Ghost Riders of Ordebec when I get to it, since I loved the eccentrics in this book. That was probably my favorite part of this book, that they were determined to continue their quest.

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  19. There are a lot of eccentrics in Vargas' books. A police officer is introduced in This Night's Foul Work who speaks in 12-syllable Alexandrine verse. He stays in the books, too.

    Also, Vargas does often go back to Medieval folk lore and myths, as it is her specialty in history and archaelogy. I learned about the bubonic plague in Have Mercy on Us All, a Medieval prayer in This Night's Foul Work, Rumanian myths in An Uncertain Place, which is a bit zany, but is still a mystery solved with evidence.

    The Ghost Riders of Ordebec goes back to a myth from the Middle Ages, but has a modern-day solution based on evidence.

    I would be happy if Vargas churned out 3-4 books a year.

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    1. I have a lot to look forward to. I don't know much about mythology, but my son is very interested in them. I think he would like these books, too.

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  20. I just finished this book ( in French: L"Homme à l' envers) and you will have to put me in the category: disappointed. score: 1

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    1. Nancy, this is an author that seems to divide readers. It is interesting that you did not like it in the original language. I always wonder how much difference a translation makes.

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  21. I just finished "The Chalk Circle Man" (L'homme aux cercles bleus) and you will have to put me in the category: disappointed...again! I hope you have the time to stop by my blog and read my review. Perhaps you can recognize some points I mentioned about the book. Love to hear your comments...

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    1. Thanks for commenting and letting me know your opinion of The Chalk Circle Man, Nancy. I did not like that one much either. I hope I like the next one I try in the series, whenever that happens.

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