Vargas, Fred - 'The Ghost Riders of Ordebec' (translated by Sian Reynolds)
A fragile and panic-stricken old woman journeys to Paris to see Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, the only policeman she trusts to help with the peculiar affliction that's fallen on her home village of Ordebec. Her daughter has seen a vision: ghostly horsemen who target society's rotten apples. One such man has disappeared, and it seems three more are in the firing line unless Adamsberg can unravel the forces of superstition which have the village in their thrall.
Adamsberg, beset by problems of his own, is glad of the excuse to escape Paris even if he has no real business investigating this case. He strikes up a friendship with a village elder, Léone, who knows Ordebec's strange cast of characters intimately. When Léone falls victim to the evil afoot, Adamsberg becomes determined to solve the case, aided and abetted by his own strange cast of helpmates.
Is it bad form to quote another person's review at this point? Only I was struck by the words from The Times which adorn the cover of this new Vargas: "One of today's truly original writers of crime fiction: disturbing, unruly, droll and poetic".
Unruly, droll and poetic sum up Vargas' wiles beautifully. She also does a perfectly-pitched line in anarchy. Her hero, Adamsberg, refuses to fit any of the classical moulds for detectives, and his support cast is as weird and wacky as it gets – from the statuesque Retancourt and Veyrenc with his terrible rhyming couplets, to Danglard the drunken genius and now Zerk, Adamsberg's recently discovered son, whose stumbling relationship with his father is a joy to read.
Vargas has a genius for weaving a strand of the supernatural into her crime stories without breaking faith with the credibility of her plot. In previous novels, she's had readers almost believing in vampires, werewolves and ghosts, before extracting a commonsensical explanation at the last moment.
THE GHOST RIDERS OF ORDEBEC (published in France under an alternative title that translates as The Furious Army) is no exception, with its evocation of a terrible legend with the power to drive ordinary people to commit murder. Yet there is never any doubt that this legend is being manipulated by a killer who's very much alive. With a surfeit of suspects, can dreamy and distracted Jean-Baptiste sort the clues from the red herrings? You'll be turning the pages to find out, but also because Vargas has created a compelling world of characters that is simply irresistible.
You care, deeply, for Adamsberg and Danglard and their team. You care for poor besieged Léone and her sugar-hungry hound, Fleg, and for the crazy Vendermots who would need an entire social services team working overtime just to sort out their problems. Damn it, you even care for the crippled pigeon that sleeps (and craps) in Adamsberg's shoe.
And Vargas breaks every rule to bring you to this point. You can't empathise with these characters; they're simply too strange. You don't recognise yourself or loved ones, or anyone, in these pages. Vargas doesn't manipulate your emotions in any conventional way, shape or form. She simply writes astoundingly differently. She dares to write this way, jumping from character to character across the page like one of the fleas in that filthy pigeon, inviting you to keep pace with her unruliness, her droll voice, her poetry. And it is anarchy on her part. Joyful, disturbing anarchy. Because who else is daring to break these rules, and doing it with such panache?
While it would be wonderful to think Vargas is a trailblazer for more crime fiction of this kind, I suspect she's a one-off. And so I must wait another year to be delighted all over again by her next astounding book.
Sarah Hilary, England
Sarah Hilary is the Bristol-based winner of the Cheshire Prize of Literature 2012, the Sense Creative Writing Award 2010 and the Fish Criminally Short Histories Prize 2008. In 2012, she launched Flashbang, a crime writing contest in association with CrimeFest. Sarah's debut novel, SOMEONE ELSE'S SKIN, will be published by Headline in 2014.