First of all: don’t trust the name. Fred Vargas, one of the most acclaimed of all current European crime writers, is (despite the male moniker) a woman. Vargas trained as an archaeologist, and she adopted the ‘Fred’ in homage to the seductress played by Ava Gardner in The Barefoot Contessa. Fred is really Frédérique; she’s a dab hand at the accordion, loathes travel (hence the exclusively Parisian settings of her books), and has made it clear that she’d run a mile before getting mixed up in a real crime case. So why is she so highly thought of? And why are her books selling to more than aficionados of European crime writing?
Vargas’s celebrity began in modest fashion: published in France by a small publisher, she can now boast prodigious sales. A key book, The Three Evangelists, firmly demonstrates why Vargas is spoken of in such warm terms. Her books have a very individual tone of voice – Gallic, but universal in its cutting psychology, and the personalities of her characters are rendered with off-kilter skill. In The Three Evangelists, Greek opera diva Sophia Siméonidis finds that a tree has mysteriously appeared in her Paris garden. She enlists the aid of her neighbours to crack the mystery, and they’re just the people to help her: disgraced copper Vandoosler and the down-at-heel historians who are the eponymous Three Evangelists – Marc, Lucien and Mathieu. Tempted by both the mystery and the money on offer, they investigate – but come up with nothing. Then their opera singer neighbour vanishes, and her body turns up as a charred pile of ashes in a car. The quartet now has a murder to solve – and a variety of suspects, including the singer’s lover, niece and husband.
A Vargas novel is as good as a trip to Paris (useful, at present). The style has the same hyper-real quality as all her writing – the real world, but filtered through a strange prism – but it’s the plotting that really hits the spot: ingenious and eccentric. There was much brouhaha some years ago about the Crime Writers’ Association’s decision to exclude novels not written in English from its prestigious Dagger award; there was, admittedly, the consolation of a separate prize for foreign writers. But after reading this novel by Fred Vargas, many felt that she deserved the main trophy.
Reviewed by Barry Forshaw
THE THREE EVANGELISTS
Written by Fred Vargas
Translated from the French by Sian Reynolds
Published by Vintage (2007)
Barry Forshaw’s books include Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide, the Keating Award-winning Brit Noir and Nordic Noir. Other work: Death in a Cold Climate, Sex and Film and the British Crime Writing encyclopedia (also a Keating Award winner). He edits Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk).
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