The Three Evangelists by Fred Vargas, translated by Sian Reynolds
This was our bookgroup read for June into July, the first roman policier, and an award-winning one too, by frenchwoman Fred Vargas – Fred being short for Frédérique. Vargas is an archaeologist and historian and, with Reynolds as her translator, won three successive CWA International Dagger awards for her first three novels.
Although the plot of this novel contains an ingenious crime which kept us guessing to the end, at its heart this book is totally character-driven. It is set in and around those quiet Parisian side-streets south of the rive gauche full of houses where shabby can sit perfectly alongside chic, and cornershop brasseries and tabacs do a good local trade. Let me tell you a little about what happens …
The story opens with an opera singer – Sophia Siméonidis wakes up to discover that a tree has been planted the garden of her grande maison. Her husband is unconcerned, but it troubles her, so she rings the bell of ‘the disgrace’ as she calls the house next door to ask the three young historians, Marc, Mathias and Lucien who share it to dig up the garden and see what’s going on. Nothing found, the tree is replanted, but some weeks later Sophia goes missing. The remains of a corpse which appears to be the missing opera singer is found in a burned-out car. The three had befriended Sophia and her best friend Juliette who runs the brasserie a few streets away, and together with Marc’s godfather and uncle, an ex-cop, they start to investigate. Was it her cool and aloof husband, her fiery Greek former lover, her niece who has arrived in Paris? All could have dunnit.
Now, back to the characters. It is Armand Vandoosler, Marc’s godfather that coins the term the three evangelists for the guys, calling Marc, Mathias and Lucien, St Mark, St Matthew and St Luke after the gospels for fun. It irritates the hell out of Marc in particular, but it sticks.
The three young academics are strapped for cash. When offered to live at a low rent in ‘the disgrace’ in return for doing the house up, they jump at it. They each specialise in a different era of history – Marc is a medievalist, Mathias studies cavemen, and Lucien The Great War. Their characters reflect their chosen eras too. Marc is very serious and dresses in black, Mathias would live like a caveman if he could, and Lucien talks in war clichés…
…Lucien came downstairs and burst into Marc’s room without knocking.
‘General alert!’ he cried. ‘Take cover! The neighbour’s on her way.’
‘The one on the Western Front. The one on the right, if you prefer. The rich woman who wears scarves. Not a word. When she rings the bell, nobody moves. Empty house. I’ll tell Mathias.’
Before Marc could say anything, Lucien had run down to the first floor.
‘Mathias,’ he called, opening his door. ‘General alert! Empty—‘
Marc heard Lucien stop abruptly. He smiled and came downstairs after him.
‘Oh for God’s sake,’ Lucien was saying. ‘Do you have to be in the nude to put up some bookshelves! I mean, what is the point? Don’t you ever get cold?’
‘I’m not in the nude, I’ve got sandals on,’ Mathias said calmly.
It could be easy to get irritated by these three, our modern-day equivalent of the impecunious students of Puccini’s La Bohème, or French ‘Friends‘ like Ross, Chandler and Joey. However, I rather liked them, as did our bookgroup. I did have a favourite in Mathias who is big-hearted and arty, (he’s Joey, although by subject matter he should be paleontologist Ross); Lucien could be Chandler – master of the quick quip, and Marc is all too serious and highly-strung Ross.
I haven’t introduced you properly to Vandoosler yet. The old ex-cop is utterly charming, a silver-haired flatterer who had was retired from the Sûreté for not being the cleanest of flics. I immediately visualised him as Giancarlo Gianini, (who played Rene Mathis in the Bond films, Casino Royal and Quantum of Solace). I know he’s Italian, but he feels right in my thinking. Mind you, Alain Delon would do too!
Armand Vandoosler raised his finely wrought profile. He was looking like a policeman now. He had a concentrated expression which seemed to draw his eyes in under his eyebrows; his nose appeared somehow more commanding. Marc recognised the look. The godfather had such an expressive face that you could tell the kind of thoughts he was having. When he looked serious, it was the twins and their mother, lost somewhere in the world; when it was medium-serious, it was police business; when it was sharp, it was some woman he was trying to seduce. At least that was the simple reading.
Vandoosler leads their investigation, using his contacts in the police, but doing things totally his own way. He must have driven the local police mad with his interfering, but we all enjoy maverick investigators.
There was much humour in this novel which kept the tone light – the interplay between the three evangelists was fun, and the relationship between Marc and his godfather too. The descriptions of Paris life were nice too, particularly all the late suppers at the brasserie, bringing shopping from the markets not the supermarché – it almost seems an age ago, yet the modern scourge of car parking problems will play a part too.
I liked this book a lot, and so did the rest of our bookgroup who made it to our monthly meeting. Vargas has written two more novels featuring the Three Evangelists, but unfortunately, these don’t appear to have been translated yet. We all would read more, but will have to try her other series – featuring Commissaire Adamsberg.
Overall though, this book just made us all want to go to Paris! (8/10)
Which brings me to the fact that this post fits perfectly with the start of this year’s Paris in July hosted by Bookbath and Thyme for Tea – a month-long celebration of all things literary related to the City of Light. It’s the first time I’ve joined in, and I hope to read at least one more Parisian book this month too.
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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Three Evangelists by Fred Vargas (1995), translated by Sian Reynolds (2006), Vintage paperback.