The theme of this year’s Reading Group at the Institut français is ‘testing translations’, but there is a definite sub-theme on crime and murder, explains Dr Dominic Glynn, a French lecturer at the Institute of Modern Languages Research.
Last time we followed the existential crisis that led Georges Perec’s forger to kill his master employer in Le Condottière. This time we had supernatural murderers to pursue in company of celebrated crime fiction writer Fred Vargas.
Born in 1957 in Paris, Vargas (pen name for Frédérique Audouin-Rouzeau) wrote her first novel while on an archaeological dig. She has since given up the day job as a medieval archaeozoologist to concentrate on writing: a decision that seems wise given the success of her novels (she regularly appears on the annual bestsellers list published by Le Figaro. And many of these novels feature Commissaire Adamsberg, who is described as looking very much like his TV incarnation Jean-Hugues Anglade.
L’Armée furieuse, the book up for discussion on 10 March, brings Adamsberg to Ordebec a fictional town, possibly based on Orbec. The townsfolk live in fear of a medieval legendary Wild Hunt in which unpunished criminals lose their lives. Assisted by two rival deputies who have a love for medieval verse as well as a gendarme whose ancestor was a Marshal in Napoleon’s army, Adamsberg has to deal with a simultaneous enquiry into the murder of a rich industrialist, possibly by his sons. There’s also a troubling case concerning a pigeon.
Vargas takes us through the double murder enquiry, drawing our attention to intriguing details, immobile cows, for instance, along the way. She also ties up all the loose threads in a clever bundle at the end, despite the seeming improbability of being able to do so. And, unlike much crime fiction, there is a lot of emphasis on dialogue – even dialogue that doesn’t bring the case any further forward.
In our free-flowing discussion, many explained how they enjoyed reading Vargas’s work even though they weren’t usually interested in crime fiction. We talked about how she gently subverted expectations, played with overturning power structures and added a dose of humour to the proceedings. We questioned our own assumptions when it came to reading genre literature – be it crime fiction and horror. We agreed, disagreed and agreed to disagree along the way. All in all, it made for a lively session.
Looking forward, instead of chocolate this Easter, you might like to ask the bunny for a copy of Michel Tournier’s Le Roi des aulnes in time for our next session on 7 April. We’ll see you then.
Dr Dominic Glynn joined the IMLR in 2015, having previously worked in professional theatre and academia in France. His main area of scholarship expertise is in contemporary French theatre and his next research project engages with the cross-disciplinary question of what it means to be a writer by studying contemporary French theatre.
This article first appeared on the Institut français Culturethèque blog and is reproduced with kind permission.