Author: Fred Vargas
Publisher: Random House
Copyright Year: 2013
No of Pages: 360
Review By: Sue Turnbull
‘People will die,’ says the panic-stricken woman outside police headquarters. She has been standing in blazing sunshine for more than an hour, and refuses to speak to anyone besides Commissaire Adamsberg. Her daughter has seen a vision: ghostly horsemen who target the most nefarious characters in Normandy. Since the middle ages there have been stories of murderers, rapists, those with serious crimes on their conscience, meeting a grizzly end following a visitation by the riders.
Soon after the young woman’s vision a notoriously cruel man disappears, and the local police dismiss the matter as superstition. Although the case is far outside his jurisdiction, Adamsberg agrees to investigate the strange happenings in a village terrorised by wild rumours and ancient feuds.
Rats scamper into the scene of crime in Fred Vargas’s recently translated French roman policier (or Rompol as the French call them). Given her
day job, as archaeo-zoologist Frederique Audoin-Rouzeau, this is hardly surprising. In 2003 she published a study on the epidemiology of the Black Death (Les Chemins de la Plague/The Routes of the Plague) which had much to do with rats, before going on to win the British Crime Writers Association Award for best international crime – three times.
The Ghost Riders of Ordebec begins with a story about rats, not the nasty blood sucking rats of Lemaitre, but a genteel couple called Toni and Marie who groom each other’s fur as well as the hair of the old man who feeds them in his kitchen. Unfortunately for the old man’s wife, he prefers their company to hers. So he suffocates her with a loaf of bread, sits down with his crossword puzzle and waits for Adamsberg to arrive.
This is a typical Vargas opener, throwing the reader off-kilter before embarking on the central quest which, as usual, involves some element of the mythic or strange. This time it’s the appearance in a forest in Normandy of a medieval band of ghostly riders which over the centuries has presaged the doom and death of the local inhabitants, one of whom has been spotted in their company.
So off the curious Adamsberg sets with his motely crew of detectives in tow: Danglard the polymath with the insatiable appetite for white wine; Veyrenc with the orange stripes in his hair; the always magnificent ‘polyvalent goddess’ Violette Retancourt, and an injured pigeon.
If you like your crime whimsical with a kaleidoscope of local colour, a touch of Zen and hair-dressing rats, Vargas is for you.