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by Fred Vargas and Siān Reynolds, trans.
Harvill Secker, April 2013
360 pages
$22.95 CAD
ISBN: 1846555868

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

There is a translator's note by the incomparable Siān Reynolds appended to THE GHOST RIDERS OF ORDEBEC that provides the curious reader with certain details regarding the structure of the French police services. Presumably Reynolds is having us on, for the very last question any reader might have would concern the probability of Commissaire Adamsberg working a case not in Paris but in Normandy. First of all, when has geography ever been a deterrent for a man who has wandered recently to Quebec, London, and Serbia? Second, and more important, although Adamsberg and his colleagues are thoroughly grounded in reality, the cases that come their way are linked to another, more mysterious, folkloric alternative universe.

Here, Adamsberg is accosted by a woman who has come to Paris for the first time in her life from Normandy to ask for his help. Her daughter has seen "l'armée furieuse" AKA "la Mesnie Hellequin," Hellequin's Horde," a ghostly troop of horsemen and their mounts that are missing some of their more important body parts. This group is known to seize various members of the community and then depart, leaving those they seized with the knowledge that they are about to die within days. And die they do, frequently horribly. The woman is so terrified that she can barely speak, thus leaving Adamsberg with the misapprehension that what she fears is the "Curious Army."

He is reluctant to get involved. He has enough on his plate as it is - saving a young activist from the slums from being railroaded in the death of an industrialist, for example, not to speak of bringing a pigeon-torturer to justice. Still he does in the end go to Ordebec, where he falls to the various charms of an elderly aristocrat and of the young woman who saw the ghost riders in the first place. He also manages to involve his twenty-eight-year-old son Zerk (of whom he has only just become aware) in the events in a rather touching way.

Adamsberg's whole crew is on hand as well - Danglard, who really does need that extra glass or two to keep going in a direction that he thoroughly disapproves of; Violette Retancourt, the "polyvalent goddess" and animal-lover; Veyrenc, compulsive emitter of bad Alexandrine couplets; and Mercadet, whose narcolepsy plays a central role. So described, they sound egregiously quirky, but their peculiarities rapidly come to seem simply human.

Readers familiar with the way Vargas works will know that while there is a broad strain of the occult always present in Adamsberg's cases, the solutions to them will be firmly fixed in reality, if a somewhat quixotic one. So is the case here. The Furious Army may have singled out victims whom no one much liked and who will hardly be missed, but this is a human, not a supernatural hand at work.

In some ways, reviewing a new Adamsberg novel by Vargas is an exercise in futility. Anyone who has read even one has formed an opinion. Her very particular mixture of witty commentary, ironic observation, disturbing forays into the unconscious, and a generally anarchic approach to what is only nominally a police procedural either captures readers' affections or turns them off altogether. While I suspect that you might be better off starting further back in the series if you are new to Vargas, still, if ORDEBEC is what comes to hand, then plunge right in. As for faithful followers of the adventures of Adamsberg, no invitation is necessary.

§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, April 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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