Meeting Commissaire Adamsberg

Republished into its original place in my blog’s timeline from my lost posts archive

Seeking Whom He May Devour by Fred Vargas

Translated by David Bellos

Although not my first read of French author Fred Vargas (that was The Three Evangelists – reviewed here), this was my first encounter with her detective, Commissaire Adamsberg. SWHMD is the second novel featuring him; I prefer to read a series in order, but don’t have the first. That is The Chalk Circle Man, and in this case I don’t think it really mattered in introducing me to Adamsberg who, until well over halfway into this novel, is peripheral to the action!  I was intrigued by the English title of the novel, which I found comes from the bible:

Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.

1 Peter 5.8

What is stranger is that it contrasts so much from the original French title: L’Homme à l’envers – The inside-out man – which is perhaps not such a good title in English.

The novel is set in SE France, amongst the villages nestling near the alpine foothills surrounded by sheep farms and where life conforms to a rural idyll.  Le Parc National du Mercantor is a forested region bordering Italy, and wildlife experts are closely monitoring the wolves who have crossed the Alps from Italy. One of the experts, a taciturn Canadian called Lawrence Johnstone, is obsessed by the wolves, he even looks after one that is too old to hunt by leaving him rabbits. Johnstone lives with Camille, an enigmatic musician, who when not composing soundtracks for TV programmes, does plumbing.

One night, some sheep are killed. The toothmarks seem to indicate a giant wolf. Johnstone believes that it may be a large wolf who has not been seen for a while, whom he names Crassus the Bald.  More sheep are killed and their owner Suzanne thinks it is a werewolf:

Camille tried to make out Johnstone’s face in the dark, to see whether he was having her on, or what. But the Canadian’s expression remained stony and serious.
“Are you talking about the kind of guy who turns into a monster at night with claws that grow and hair that sprouts all over and canines that stick out over his lower lip? The sort of guy who goes around eating people lost at night in the woods and then stuffs his hairy chest inside his suit jacket in the morning before going into the office?”
“You got it,” said Johnstone, seriously. “A werewolf.”

…which explains the French title.  But Suzanne is brutally murdered in similar fashion the next day.  When a local man, Massart, a misfit who lived alone goes missing, and a map is found in his hut with crosses where the sheep were killed and a route going through the region marked on it, Suzanne’s friends decide it must be him and form a posse to catch him. Johnstone heads back into the park to track the wolves.

Soliman is Suzanne’s adopted son. Presumed to be African, he was abandoned as a baby, and being the only black person around stands out amongst the locals. Watchee is Suzanne’s ancient shepherd. Neither of them can drive, so they persuade Camille, who it turns out has an HGV licence, to ferry them in a converted sheep truck.  They set off on the chase through the perilous mountain roads, living in the back of the lanolin-steeped old lorry. They’re always one step behind though, there are more sheep killings and two more men are murdered. This always playing catch-up gives the trio time to talk, bicker and bond. They are a likeable band, but you do wonder what they would actually do if they caught up with Massart.

What of Commissaire Adamsberg?  He has been following the sheep murders on the news back in Paris where he has his own problem, living in hiding as a woman stalker has vowed to kill him for putting a bullet in the gut of their gang leader:

Adamsberg could see her now, standing on the other side of the street. […] when she came out in the open, like today, Adamsberg did not know whether she had a weapon on her or not. She often kept visible watch on him like that – to try his nerves he reckoned. Adamsberg’s easygoing nature kept him at a steady rhythm, which was always slow, almost detached. It was not easy, therefore, to know whether he was taking a genuine interest in something or whether he didn’t give a damn. More out of indolence rather than courage, Commissaire Adamsberg did not know what it was to be scared.
His imperturbable low key had an almost magical calming effect on other people, and brought about genuine miracles in the interrogation of suspects. People like Inspector Danglard, who felt all of life’s big and little bumps in his bones, like a cyclists for ever riding a new leather saddle, despaired of getting Adamsberg to react to anything. Just to react? That wasn’t asking for the moon, was it, now?

The trio need help, and Camille knows a flic who can – Adamsberg; they used to be lovers.  She makes the call. Adamsberg is happy to be drawn into the investigation, and to see Camille again. With him on the team, the quartet should surely be able to find the killer, whatever or whoever they are…

Like the other Vargas book I read, SWHMD was an unconventional crime novel, but always fascinating. It has brutal crimes within its pages, yet managed to have an engaging, wry sense of humour that drew me in, due to the strength of her characters.  Camille is such a strong woman, I have to hope that she might crop up again, but Adamsberg himself is enigmatic and, in his considered manner, reminded me a lot of Maigret!  It is a brave author that doesn’t bring her detective into the fray until page 162 out of 263, although he does follow the crimes from the start of the book.  I also liked the way that the superstitious villagers could believe in the old werewolf legends, building up the tension. More Vargas novels are definitely on the cards after reading this one. (9/10)

Don’t forget that August is Women in Translation Month – hosted by Meytal at Biblibio.

Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below (affiliate link):
Seeking Whom He May Devour (Commissaire Adamsberg) by Fred Vargas (1999), trans David Bellos (2004). Vintage paperback.




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