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by Fred Vargas and Siān Reynolds, trans.
Harvill Secker, August 2016
410 pages
$25.00 CAD
ISBN: 1910701394

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Commissaire Adamsberg may be stationed in Paris, but that does not mean that he remains confined to the 15th arrondissement, regardless of its charms. In fact, he always seems to be on the lookout for a chance to travel somewhere else, preferably as far off the beaten track as possible. So when the apparent suicide of a woman in Paris leads him first to the countryside west of Paris and ultimately in the direction of Iceland, he is only too happy to go.

It all begins quietly enough. Alice Gautier, an elderly woman in failing health, totters off to post a letter, but falls, dropping the envelope. A passerby retrieves it and drops it in the box. A few days later, Alice is found dead in her bath, an apparent suicide. But there is a mysterious image, a sign drawn in eyebrow pencil on the washstand, and the investigating officer is not convinced that he is dealing with a suicide. He turns to Adamsberg and his team, especially Danglard, for help.

Adamsberg and the others will be led in turn to two circles of interest. One is a party of tourists who visited Iceland ten years earlier, where they had a terrible time on a small island off the coast. Alice Gautier was one of them, and now others, like herself, are meeting untimely ends, their bodies accompanied by the same mysterious symbol that adorned her bathroom.

The other is a group of French Revolutionary re-enactors that meets regularly in Paris. They don fancy dress of the period, but unlike most groups of the kind, they do not engage in mock physical battle, waving swords and firing off antique pistols. Instead, they reproduce the sessions of the National Assembly during the Revolution, leading up, inevitably, to the death of Robespierre. In short, it is all talk, but poisonous talk all the same, as the passions of the period seem to possess these contemporary actors and have led to a climate of fear among the members of the society.

What better group of police than Adamsberg and his team to deal with so specialized a group? They are all present: Danglard, whose phenomenal memory and peculiar expertise in French Revolutionary matters is absolutely critical; Violette Retancourt, six feet tall and 110 kilos of solid muscle who, happily, can knit; Veyrenc, compulsive emitter of bad Alexandrine couplets; and Mercadet, whose regular bouts of narcolepsy must be accommodated. It is a group of eccentrics, certainly, nor have they always been in agreement about what course of action to takein the pursuit of a killer, but now, as they are more exposed to the wranglings of the historical past, dissension infects the lot, especially Danglard, who begins to look at Adamsberg with the eye of a usurper.

As is the case with almost all of the Vargas titles in English, no attempt has been made to translate the French original literally. First published last year as Temps glaciaires (Ice Age), the present English title, perhaps conceived after the series of attacks that have wounded France so deeply, strikes me as the better choice, alluding as it does both to past and present terrors.

Fred Vargas has won the CWA International Dagger four times. It would be more exact to say that she and her translator, Siān Reynolds, have won the prize, since it is Reynolds' great talent as a translator that so ably conveys the flavour of the original. Readers who shy away from reading translated work need have no fear.

In some ways, A CLIMATE OF FEAR covers some familiar ground, with its mixture of wit, eccentricity, and a whiff of the paranormal. But change is underway in Adamsberg's world and whether heads will roll or equilibrium be restored is left to another book. But this one is certainly among the very best of the series, a book that speaks cogently to events that occurred after it was written, events that we all must attempt at least to comprehend.

§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, September 2016

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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