This week’s rural reading is from Normandy, Fred Vargas’ The Ghost Riders of Ordebec. It’s set in the summer, and Commissaire Adamsberg has been summoned from Paris to allay the fears of a woman whose daughter Lina has seen the local version of the Wild Hunt, the Ghost Riders or Furious Army, who travel along a set route, picking up evildoers on their path, and condemning them to ride for eternity. Lina and her three brothers are regarded by the other villagers as “special”, and their unhappy history is slowly revealed. Lina saw in her vision four people seized by the Furious Army, the first one a man named Herbier, who is found dead shortly after Lina’s revelations.
Adamsberg has to contend with the local cop, a man rather too keen on his own Napoleonic antecedents, and the local countess, who takes him under her wing. He has also had to bring along his son, an injured pigeon, and a key witness in a corruption case. His usual team are mostly left behind in Paris, where they continue to act as an eccentric and mildy dysfunctional family, worrying about the cat that sleeps on the photocopier and generally not doing things by the book.
Vargas has a fantastic eye for character, and can sketch an entire person in two or three well-chosen sentences. I enjoyed the parallels between the odd family in Ordebec and Adamsberg’s usual team, showing why Adamsberg was uniquely qualified to gain people’s confidence in this case. Vargas paints her characters with tolerance and affection, and I could cheerfully spend a great deal more time with them.
For a long time, I have resisted the charms of Martin Walker’s series featuring Bruno, Chief of Police, set in the Perigord region of France. I already had my French detectives, thanks to Messrs Simenon, Freeling and Hebden. There was no need to add one that was obviously designed to appeal to trapped English office workers, with a heavy emphasis on food and wine and better weather than at home.
Then I finally read one. I picked up The Devil’s Cave (no. 5 in the series) with my sternest I’m-Not-Going-To-Like-This expression. If it were possible to read a book with folded arms, I would have. And I was wrong wrong wrong – I was enchantee. Yes, there was every French cliché in the book, but it was charming. Bruno himself is a more sophisticated Hamish Macbeth, torn between two women, and eschewing all ambition so that he can stay in the place he loves, with his hens and his kitchen and his basset hound puppy.
The story opens with a naked dead woman floating down the river in a punt, like the Lady of Shalott. Tracing the boat back upstream leads Bruno to an old French family with a complicated family tree and even more complex land dealings. They also own, and lease out, a famous local cave which forms the centre point of the investigations. Bruno, needless to say, cooks and drinks his way through a series of escapades, including a comic set-piece in which someone tries to frame him. I learned some new French slang, and am now an official convert to the cause.
Now I know how the original readers of Christie’s “Murder of Roger Ackroyd” must have felt – a mixture of indignation (“Not fair, I was tricked!”) and admiration at how the trick was pulled off. All I can say is, the author of “Black Water Lilies” (Michel Bussi) would not be admitted to the Detection Club in the 1930s, because this book does not play fair.
I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but it’s set in Giverny, northern France, the home of the Impressionist painter Monet, who in his later years painted many versions of his lily pond, with the water lilies depicted in every colour except black. If there were to be such a thing as Monet’s “Black Water Lilies”, it would be enormously valuable.
When a prominent local citizen is found dead in the stream that feeds Monet’s garden (I keep typing Money for some reason), a police inspector, Laurenc Serenac, newly arrived from southern France, is called in to investigate, but finds that the villagers have closed ranks. The one person he thinks could help is the village schoolteacher, Stephanie Dupain.
Giverny is as much a character as any of the humans, or the dog, and the perils of being a tourist village are highlighted, that sense of being not real, so photographed (and painted) that the village itself is a fiction. It is hard to pick apart the real from the imagined, and the reader is constantly searching for clues as to which is which. An impressively unexpected ending has sent me back to the beginning, to re-read.