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March 2017

This is the ninth title in the tales of Commissar Adamsberg, the vague, unkempt, inquisitive detective, played in a film adaptation superbly by Juan Garcia.

Garcia.jpg Juan Garcia as Adamsberg.

There are also television episodes that have all-star guests like Charlotte Rampling. In the following picture from the television production we have Adamsberg, Danglard, and Retancourt.

VArgas trio.jpg

The characters are varied and amusing; the dialogue is human and humane; the situations stretch from the mundane to …. Iceland and back.

Climate of fear cover.jpg

How does she do it, Fred Vargas, one time professor, now full time writer? Well, I hope she is at it full time because it is a big world and more of it needs Adamsberg, Danglard, and company to resolve its mysteries.

The setup in this title?

An elderly woman is found dead in her bath with slashed wrists. She had terminal cancer and the gendarmes call it suicide, and following procedure they photograph the scene and present it to the station chief to sign off and close the file. Bored, he reads the file and looks at the pictures.

Odd that symbol drawn in lipstick on the side of basin.

He calls Danglard, Adamsberg’s number two, famed in the small world of plod for his vast knowledge, retentive memory, and capacity to solve puzzles. Danglard has to see it for himself in situ, and being bored, Adamsberg rides along with Danglard for an outing. The symbol baffles even Danglard and once baffled he cannot quit. Adamsberg is indifferent as they return to their desks.

Then, by chance, a woman comes to the front counter of the nick to make report, but she finds the cop shop all rather distressing and turns to leave, her mission unspoken, but Danglard passes through the lobby and he, of unfailing courtesy, addresses her with great civility. She responds to his politesse, and in short order she reports…. It ties in with the ostensible suicide.

Now Adamsberg reads the file and the plot thickens. Terminally ill or not, why would such a formidable woman lay down fully clothed, hair done, perfumed, nails polished in the tub full of water and cut her wrists? Why would a woman described as determined and self-sufficient, give way? Why is there no suicide note? Why did she struggle in her Zimmer Frame to mail a letter that afternoon?

It all does not add up to zero. There is something more to do it and it meets the eye in the symbol that even Danglard cannot decode.

As ever there are tensions among the officers, numbering about twenty, in this unit. Adamsberg’s loyal number two is Danglard, and there are others who also suspend disbelief in order to be loyal to him, too. It takes suspension because he does go off on tangents, and some do not work, but others do. The tangents come from his intuition which he seldom can explain. Adamsberg is not articulate or learned.

Against this are the positivists in the squad who want facts, finger prints, DNA samples, eye-witnesses before making a move. The metaphysical cloud shovelers who follow Adamsberg are tested in this title, and even Danglard wavers. That phrase ‘cloud shovelers’ was hung on Adamsberg and his deputy in Quebec in an earlier title, but it sticks.

Characterisations are one of Vargas’s strong points. She differentiates her characters and gives them each space, in the way Frank Capra gave character actors camera time, believing it enriches the story, rather than detracting from the protagonist. It sure does. (There days most of the diminishing breed of character actors could be, and sometimes are, replaced by CGI. [Computer Generated Images, Mortimer!])

In this tale there is a thuggish stable man with a police record, who dotes on his horses while imposing discipline on them with whistles and words of kindness that abash both Danglard and Adamsberg. There is a retired nurse who dithers, but is incisive when it counts. There is a spoiled and petulant young man of twenty who has depths none anticipated. Then there are the history re-enactors, some of whom are even odder than Adamsberg.

Most of all there are the regulars, starting with Adamsberg wearing clothes that looked slept-in and probably were, again. Danglard who will never be promoted because he is an alcoholic, a single parent with a brood that takes up a lot of time and energy, and a walking encyclopaedia as far as colleagues can tell. There are many others on the team, like the Amazon Retancourt, who are all watched over the in the office from atop the photocopier by Snowball who figured decisively in one of the earlier tales.

In this title the plot is, as always, complicated, convoluted, and obscure. Yet when it is nailed, it all hangs together. Of course, it is far fetched and some of the touches of the bizarre are, well, bizarre, and probably unnecessary but they have become the decoration on Vargas stories. The bizarre touches, the boar, the mysterious island, are well judged, if distractions.

Vargas mug.jpg Fred Vargas

Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau (1957-), archaeologist by day and krimiest by night. At the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and then the Institut Pasteur she specialises in epidemiology, particularly the Black Death in Europe. Her authoritative study is 'Les chemins de la peste' (2003). Some dinner table conversation there I expect.

A new locale, a new investigator, a new approach for this jaded reader of police procedurals.

The protagonist, Owen Irvine, was once in policing and then spent a decade investigating social benefits fraud for the local council in Cumbria.

Cumbria-2.gif

His past in policing is murky, and no doubt more of his backstory will emerge. Ho, hum. Backstories do not a front story make.

Invasive cover_.jpg

Tracing penny-ante fraudsters is not much fun for Owen but there are challenges. Mostly though his prey are single mothers trying to squeeze a few more quid from the system for their kiddies, or so they say despite the new car in front, the satellite dish on the roof, and the ashtray full of St Tropez cigarette stubs on the table.

Owen is numb, having heard all the lamebrain excuses before, each told as if unique.

Not only does the council squeeze the pounds it pays to claimants, it also squeezes those it pays to the investigators, and the chopping block has Owen’s name on it. While his record is the best, it is too good, because he has banged up more than one relative of a councillor. In this and several other ways, the plot is leaden.

Then he meets one fraudulent claimant who is different. It is another woman, but one without excuses to offer, who seems educated, and smart, and who admits her crime, and yet …. she was desperate enough to pull a stupid stroke for a few hundred quid.

Owen breaks his own rule and asks why? He has never had to ask before. Always before he is told an avalanche of reasons he does not want to hear, because he is only serving the injunction, not making the decision. This one, Clare, tells him reluctantly a story about a man who deceived her, took advantage of her, and drained her bank account.

He passes the story onto a comrade in arms at his old nick, and, by the legerdemain of crime fiction another similar case arises, and the chase is on. Well sort of.

There a reality check in this book. Time is budgeted and for a crime without violence, for a crime where there is no evidence of a crime apart from the drained bank accounts, the time allocated is half a day. Imagine what a Star Trek film would be like if there were a Star Fleet budget. No more warp engines, Captain, we are out of dilithium crystals and do not have the gold-pressed latinum to pay for more until the end of the space-year.

Ah but the recently sacked Owen, who is more or less financially independent (because he owns his home, has a vegetable patch, a trout stream, an eternal Land Rover, and few needs), has plenty of experience in finding people who do not want to be found and time on his hands.

That is the set up. A pretty good one, if only it had been told with some élan or wit.

This reader felt the boxes being ticked. Perhaps that is inevitable in the first title of the series. Owen’s backstory is forced into the foreground. To do so makes it very wordy and slow. Though Owen is supposed to be laconic and reserved, but he talks about himself incessantly to get that backstory out. To enhance Owen he is made a victim in the dismissal by the council and by implication in his earlier dismissal from the plod. A poor put-upon hero, yet again, martyr to his virtue. All of this background interferes with any interest in the foreground. The time and place are described but they take a distant second place, and that is a shame, because the regional setting is what I found attractive at the outset.

Among the compensations are some lively scenes. The puzzling interview with Clare is one. Another is with a fraudster who seems to have done it just for fun and enjoys discussing it with Owen. Then there is the police officer who is uninterested in the information Owen passes on. They have a pissing contest, as they say on Channel 7Mate. Predictable but well done.

Regrettably, but perhaps inevitably in this kind of context, all the characters sound alike, use the same speech mannerisms, idioms, and vocabulary. All the police officers sound alike, even the educated Asian woman. Indeed, Clare is only distinctive voice in the early going, and that is a plot device, to be sure, and a good one, but it emphasises how monotonic the rest are, including Owen.

Salkeld.jpg J. J. Salkeld, a very industrious writer to judge from the array of titles on Amazon. Strength to his arm.

It is the first in a lengthy series and perhaps things come together. Time will tell, if I get back to it. I found it easy to put aside.

A noir krimi with quantum physics!

I selected it for the Kindle because I smiled at the title on the cover. Wait! There is more. It is a krimi based on quantum physics. Yep! (It also represented light relief from reading Nietzsche.)

Schordiner Gat cover_.jpg

Huh?

That is how our protagonist reacts. ‘Huh?’ He is Paul, one very depressed loser in San Francisco whose path crosses that of Tali, who saves his life but she runs away when he tries to thank her.

A chartered loser, he is used to people avoiding him, but not quite like this. He pursues her, and, without breaking stride, she promises to explain all, but first he has to grasp some quantum physics.

Huh? Well, all right.

But before she can explain much, she first has to do a few things, and, well, seeing is believing, and Paul sees enough to … believe, a little. She arranges to met him for a further explanation but she is a no-show.

Huh? (Paul has a small vocabulary.)

What is a fellow to do but Google it; he reads up on quantum physics, advising readers in direct address to skip that part of the book. I should have, but I didn’t. Had I, that would have been in total about three-quarters of the book. Of course the cat comes up.

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During this ersatz research he comes across the name of a Stanford scientist, the summaries of whose work on websites sound like Tali’s interrupted exposition. While the scientist seemed to have had a fine career strewn with publications and accolades until a few years ago when he, too, seems to have disappeared. Huh. (See!)

But even a loser can use the telephone book and Paul finds a street address that might be that of the professor. Hey, presto!

Well, that’s a lead. What would Philip Marlow do? Doh! He would go see the professor.

It is a mile-a-minute, except for the asides on matters quantum physics, and is it droll. dry as dust. Regrettably the asides on QP increase, and go on and on. The mile-a-minute stretch like a Salvador Dali watch.

Oh, and the cat. Did I mention the cat? Well, there is neither a cat nor a gat. Which word I always assumed was derived from Gattling gun, the rapid fire weapon developed in the Nineteenth Century, precursor to the machine gun. Another weapon so deadly that its inventor thought it would end war.

The set-up sounds better than it reads. It takes a quarter of the book to get the characters lined up around all the lectures on QP. There is so much preliminary fussing that it reminded of those dreadful Sunday lunches where the fussing over nothing is continuous so that the food does not appear until 4 pm by which everyone has had too much alcohol and a headache either from the drink or lack of food.

Then Paul inadvertently, if you can believe it, drops a homemade bomb into the fountain at a shopping mall and it kills a great many people. The cops arrest him and in his cell he reads Kant on metaphysics and shares it with the reader. Which is harder to swallow the bomb at the mall or Kant in the clangour? What is worse is reading it.

By this stage three-quarters of book has elapsed without any further sighting of Tali, and no explanation of events that this reader can follow. Where is that damn gat? Where is Schrödinger? Or even the cat?

Schord cat.jpg

Eventually this mass murderer is sprung on bail. What! Fire that DA and get one keeps capital criminals in the slammer.

There is a final confrontation of sorts but mostly it is like one of those post-modern conference presentations where the words flow but the meaning does not. The characters talk each other to death, or something. Hard to tell through my glazed eyes. Since this is San Francisco there is an ever handy earthquake to settle matters.

There is a long afterword with more QP. Enough, already!

Kroese.jpg Robert Kroese, who has many other titles on Amazon.

Following the afterword is a biography in which we read that the author wrote his first novel in second grade. Is this it?

I did make it to the end, but only with quick thumb work flipping the pages with very little reading and less pleasure.

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