Her work is like a baked Camembert among the smorgasbord of chilly Scandinavian realism that dominates the foreign crime fiction market here, delicious comfort food for the sophisticated palate. This is no doubt why the British Crime Writers’ Association has awarded her its annual International Dagger three times since the prize was inaugurated in 2006.
In Britain we put our most distinguished female crime writers – P D James, Ruth Rendell – in the House of Lords, but in France the 55-year-old Vargas is like an enemy of the state. She claims that in the past government spies have followed her, even at one stage renting a house across the street from hers, because of her long campaign of support for the Italian writer, ex-terrorist and alleged murderer Cesare Battisti.
“I have written a book about Battisti that is going to say the truth about everything that has happened during this process… Ten days after I finished the first part I went back to it – it had disappeared from the computer. Five days after I finished the second part, that disappeared too. OK, it could be coincidence, but they followed me so much and so continuously for eight years…” She flourishes the USB stick containing the finished draft, attached firmly to a chain round her neck, her expression still amused but her eyes defiant now too.
She has worked her frustrations with the political establishment into her new novel, in a sub-plot about an Arab boy framed for the murder of a prominent businessman. This storyline originally took up a great deal more of the novel, but Vargas has excised a lot of what she wrote. She quotes Stendhal: “‘Politics is a stone round the neck of literature’. I prefer to keep politics for my life, for articles. It makes fiction banal.”
Surprisingly for somebody whose books are prized for their humour, she also has to spend a lot of time cutting out jokes. “I have to use humour because it is necessary for me, an instinct. But I know that humour works in total opposition to suspense.” She is a great admirer of P G Wodehouse – she had a cat, recently deceased, called Bertram, as in Wooster – and she quotes some of her favourite Wodehouseisms in sonorous French.
“I adore him… everything is in the sound and the arrangement of the words.” This is vital to her work too, she says: she writes her novels in three weeks flat, then leaves the story as it is and spends six to eight months polishing the prose.
She recently started to form a tentative theory about the popularity of crime stories: readers can vicariously identify and overcome their deepest fears through the detective who seeks and catches the criminal, just as they have down the centuries through the knight who quests after and kills the dragon in myth and legend.
This is why her books are, she says, “medicinal”: she cites a woman who wrote to her saying that she was able to overcome her agoraphobia after her psychoanalyst suggested she read the Vargas canon. “That is the calming effect of the myth.”
Reading Vargas’s novels sounds like a good alternative to a course of antidepressants, I suggest. “I don’t know,” she says. “But perhaps my book about the plague should be prescribed to people suffering from insomnia.” And another gust of laughter.
It’s an example of the humour and liveliness that, in combination with her moral seriousness, is now putting her into that rare category of authors who are deeply loved. I expect to come across many cats named Adamsberg in the coming years.
* The Ghost Riders of Ordebec: A Commissaire Adamsberg Novel is published by Harvill Secker at £12.99
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Concerned, Le Guern brings the puzzling notes to the bumbling but brilliant Chief Inspector Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg and his straight-edged, right-hand man, Adrien Danglard. When strange signs that were historically believed to ward off the black death start to appear on the doors of several buildings, Adamsberg takes notice and suspects a connection with Le Guern's warnings. After a flea-bitten corpse with plague-like symptoms is found in one of the marked buildings, Fred Vargas's inimitable genius chief inspector is under pressure to solve the mystery and restore calm to a panicked Paris. But is it a real case of the bubonic scourge, or just a sinister trick designed to frighten as the body count grows and the culprit continues to elude the police?
Peopled with charming and eccentric Gallic characters, and packed with gripping historical detail, Have Mercy on Us All is a complex, surprising, and stylish tale from France's finest mystery writer.