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on 21 September 2017
Breaks one of the cardinal rules of detective fiction - withholding information from the reader that leads to the solution. But all good aside from that - characters are original and have an interesting interaction that amuses and being French have a non-brutish way of expressing themselves....
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 1 February 2016
Fred Vargas, the French historian and archaeologist Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau, introduces the reader to three less-than-successful historians in their mid-30s - Matthias Delamarre, a prehistorian, Marc Vandoosler, a specialist in medieval life, and Lucien Devernois, an expert on World War I. The three live together in an old house, called the Disgrace, with Marc’s godfather, Armand Vandoosler, a former police Commissaire, who originally referred to the friends as the Three Evangelists.

The author has great fun describing the distain of each obsessive academic for the others’ periods of study. Their immaturity, which might have been annoying, was balanced by the experience and gravitas of Armand. The living arrangements in the Disgrace put each Evangelist on a level appropriate to his historical interest, from hunter-gatherer at the bottom, medieval then WWI. Vandoosler, existing in the current era, lives at the top.

The book opens with their neighbour, the retired Greek diva Sophia Simeonidis, opening her window to find to find a beech tree planted in her garden. Her husband Pierre, a rather vague character, is unconcerned but she approaches the Evangelists who have recently moved in to ask them to investigate and offers generous payment. They dig up the tree but find nothing buried beneath it. Shortly thereafter Sophia disappears and her niece Alexandra and her young son arrive to stay with her. Pierre’s opinion that his wife left the house is at variance with Alexandra’s certainty that her aunt was expecting her.

The Evangelists and Armand widen their investigation, helped by the latter’s friendship with the man leading the police team, the surly Commissaire Leguennec. The translation is by Siân Reynolds who captures the surrealist edge of the author’s style. Lucien calls Sophia’s house ‘the Western Front’ whilst their other neighbour, on the ‘Eastern Front’, is a young restaurant owner, Juliette Gosselin, and her brother. Whilst Reynolds generally captures the lyricism and deftness of the original, there are occasions [such as the repetition of these references to the two Fronts] when it seems labored. Despite its Paris setting, the city does not feature highly in the book that succeeds through its main characters and dialogue.

Initially, this is a rather slow moving book with violent events refreshingly pushed to the edges. However, Vargas/Reynolds maintain the reader’s interest and support the critics’ claims for eccentricity. The pace picks up in the second half and the story’s investigative credentials become evident. There are several excellent twists before the final explanation is revealed although a murder victim’s dying message is contrived. Unsurprisingly, these characters have been brought back for further investigations.
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on 9 April 2009
First Sentence: `Pierre, something's wrong with the garden,' said Sophia.

Three young historians, Mathias, Marc and Lucian, and Marc's ex-policeman uncle, Armand, buy a ramshackle house, known as the `disgrace'. When Armand sees the three young men standing each framed by a section of a gothic window, he coins them "the three evangelists."

Their neighbor, Sophia, is an former opera singer. When she finds a tree has been planted in her garden, it causes her worry. She hires the young men to dig it up, just to reassure her that nothing is planted under it. When Sophia disappears, the young men, with the help of Armand, are determined to find out what happened.

I particularly like books which are character driven, and this certainly was. I loved the characters. Sophia, the retired opera singer worried about a tree which appears in her garden, the three evangelists, so named by Armand, an ex-flic and uncle to St. Mark (Marc the Middle Ages historian who always wears black), St. Martin (Mathias the Prehistoric historian who dislikes wearing clothes), and St. Luck (Lucian the Great Wars historian who always wears a tie). I felt Vargas really liked her characters and made me like them in turn.

Even the house, in which the four men live, almost becomes a character in the story. The story is wonderfully plotted, escalating bit-by-bit to the final climatic reveal. The reveal itself was particularly well done as it wasn't dry and unemotional, as most are, but filled with pain and disappointment.

Perhaps because she is Parisian and writing about her own city, there wasn't as strong a sense of place as I, a foreigner, might have liked. However, it is her familiarity with place that made me feel comfortable there as well.

This was one of the better translations. The dialogue worked very well, particularly the occasional banter between the principal characters.

Vargas' writing captivates me. It is filled with warmth, humor and emotion. I highly recommend it.
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VINE VOICEon 3 July 2011
This is a marvellously original crime novel from Fred Vargas, best known in the UK for her series featuring Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg. Here, we have different protagonists, three young and eccentric academics, Marc, Mathias and Lucien. As they move into a dilapidated house, along with Marc's godfather, Vandoosler, a disgraced ex-policeman, they become involved in the intriguing disappearance of their neighbour, Sophia. Initially, Sophia is alarmed to find that a tree has appeared overnight in her garden, and asks her new neighbours to investigate. Soon, she disappears and her body is eventually found. The Three Evangelists and Vandoosler uncover a complex web of jealousy and desire. This is a dark story, but laced with much wry humour and eccentric details of the lives of the people involved. Thoroughly enjoyable and highly recommended.
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on 23 March 2011
This is the first Fred Vargas book I read, and on the strength of it read her others (I was not disappointed), and this continues to be my stand-out favourite. I don't speak French, so I can't comment on how closely the translation fits the original, but the flow and style of the book is wonderful - both easy to read and engaging throughout. Her characters are more the focus than the mystery, but doesn't suffer from it, her characters are strong and likeable, although the mystery is clever and will keep you guessing. Absolutely worth reading, especially if you're in the mood for something a little different.
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on 1 September 2014
The three evangelists’ real names are Marc, Lucien and Mathias. They are aged 35, unemployed historians and in deep s*** financially and career-wise. They find and make a dilapidated 18th century house in Paris habitable in return for an ultra-low rent which they can just about raise between themselves. The trio occupies a floor each, with Marc’s uncle Armand, 68, a sacked police inspector moving into the attic. The ground floor is a monastery-like refectory. No TV, no telephone, which for penniless historians, is perhaps no surprise. Only Lucien holds down a lowly teaching job. Marc’s last stint of paid work was ghostwriting romantic pulp novels; Mathias tried out being a car mechanic. They were soon fired.
But why should a paleontologist like Mathias, expert in hunting and gathering and averse to shoes and clothing, be any good with engines? Or a medieval scholar like Marc indulge in writing set pieces when so much mystery surrounds 11th century feudal relations and village markets? Lucien, the temp teacher, studies strangely neglected aspects of WW I and is perhaps best able to function in the here and now. At least, he owns a tie and wears it to work.
Shortly after their move into their new lodgings, a tree is planted in their neighbours’ garden, which worried the lady of the mansion, a former opera soprano. She disappears soon after. What follows is a warren of amateur and professional investigations, suspicions and accusations about real historic and new deaths, weird conversations and a surprise ending.
This reader has read almost all Fred Vargas (FV) crime novels in the wrong order. But they stand alone. No damage done. They should not be read as pure police procedurals. They are hard to summarize afterwards. They are fruits of the fertile and quirky imagination of a serious historian and archaeologist. Her plots are always challenging re plausibility. Police work, if any, is rarely decisive. Her books are eminently forgettable, except for their great, sometimes brilliant atmosphere and the obvious pleasure with which she fabulates book after book about deep French fears.
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on 4 July 2013
A Fred Vargas policier is different from most crime novels. For a start she is often droll, sometimes agreeably witty, and matters often proceed in a bit of a meander. In this she is similar to Frances Fyfield, another writer who goes her own way, often very successfully, but it won't be according to any of the stock plot lines and stereotypes of other, less imaginatively gifted writers. This one begins with three youngish men and one of the men's uncles, moving into a dilapidated house in Paris. Lucien (a WWI historian), Marc (a mediavalist) and his Uncle (who is a disgraced policeman, sacked for letting a convicted murderer escape) and Matthias, (whose field of study is prehistoric man). They proceed to work on the house and turn it into a fair example of a monastery, as none of them is well off and can't afford much in the way of furniture. The characterisation is wonderful. The plot is perhaps a little less wonderful, however, as we become embroiled in the story of Sophie, a soprano, who lives next door (or on the Eastern Front as the soldierly Lucien insists on calling it). To the west lives Juliette, a restauranteur, who contributes to the plot.

The novel opens with a singular puzzle as a tree has appeared in Sophie's garden. It would worry me, if a tree suddenly appeared and I knew I hadn't ordered one, or planted it in my sleep. This bizarre occurence doesn't seem to bother her husband Pierre, but then Sophie suddenly disappears. The plot is quite complex but the stylish writing keeps one concentrated as the three Evangelists, as Marc's uncle terms them, struggle to find our what has happened to the bounteous and much admired Sophie. The Paris setting is a bonus, and the book has considerable charm and a deviously worked through plot. Very enjoyable.
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on 4 September 2014
I found this dreadful. Each time I picked the book up, I thought 'This time I'll find out why this author wins so many prizes'. I never did and eventually I gave up on it. It was unreadable.
All is whimsy - the plot (plot?), the characters (they have no character) and the setting (sketchy) .
If this won the award for the best crime novel in its year, which unbelievably it did, then it must have been a grim year for the genre.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 30 December 2005
One morning in her Parisian house, retired Greek opera singer Sophia Simeonidis wakes to find a beech tree has appeared in her garden overnight. A fully-grown beech tree. Her husband Pierre is unconcerned, but Sophia is distinctly unnerved. How could it have got there? Who could have put it there and why? What possible reason could there be? If it’s a simple practical joke it’s not particularly funny, if it’s a symbolic warning it’s pretty obscure. She seeks help from her hew neighbours, three eccentric young historians down on their luck and an elderly ex-cop who’ve just moved into the ramshackle house next door. The problem intrigues them, and, besides, they need all the cash they can get, so agree to dig around the tree and see if anything’s been buried underneath it. They find nothing. And for a few weeks the bizarre, inexplicable mystery remains exactly that.
Until Sophia disappears. Nobody is greatly worried. Well, at least not until the point when worrying is pretty useless: a few days later her body is found in a burnt-out car. Suddenly, the mysterious tree – though still equally mysterious – seems ever-more sinister. But why? The three historians line up a plethora of mysterious suspects (her husband, her ex-lover, her niece newly returned to the capital with her child, her best friend?) and vow to discover who killed their neighbour.
It’s hard to express how good Vargas’s novels are. At least, without seeming to launch into an overenthusiastic, over-the-top, laudatory rant. Witness one press review: “Joyous, enchanting, amazing, fantastic, unclassifiable, beyond-brilliant. Readers will not hold back praise for Fred Vargas.” A bit OTT, no? Well, no, not really. The Three Evangelists is the best so far, and contains every element that have made critics laud her to the skies: a charming, witty, quirky style, an original and gripping plot constantly fresh with twists, and endearingly eccentric, likeable characters (the three historians – or, “evangelists” are the most quirky and entertaining bunch of protagonists you’ll likely come across; their individual characters and interactions are hugely funny). The best writers are those whose work is incomparable to any other, completely original, and Vargas fits this mould as if she were designed for it.
The Three Evangelists is edgy but humorous, sinister yet light, clever but a huge amount of fun. The characters are odd (sometimes downright weird) but still real. The plots are unlikely but, due to their originality and tone, fascinating to a ludicrous degree. I’ve said this before, but I can’t really describe what makes Vargas’s books so special, so unique. They adhere to loose conventions of a mystery novel, but are unlike any other mystery novels you’ve read, in tone at least, and certainly in style. This might be the crowning feature of Vargas’s work (or maybe just the grounding one, I don’t know), the style, which just bristles with knowing fun, while taking the story itself completely seriously. Too, she garnishes both unusual and everyday events with an itchy sinister atmosphere (the appearance of a tree has never, ever been so unnerving) that, coupled with the quirky fun, puts both in the spotlight in a more pointed, powerful way. You always know when authors had fun writing a book, and this is one of them. Some of the lines, some of the understated ironic asides Vargas offers about her characters, are laugh-out-loud funny in a way more associated with Terry Pratchett
And how is it as a mystery novel? Well, in terms of being a crime novel, The Three Evangelists is the best puzzle, the most well-written and crafted clutch of surprises, that I have read in absolute months. You may think you know what’s going on, guessed what Vargas has up her sleeve, but you are, in the end, wrong. She turns the tables brilliantly several times with a mystery and story that is never as simple as it appears to be. It’s a complete joy to read, and I very much hope you do so. This might, already, be the best crime novel of 2006. I certainly wouldn’t be surprised.
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on 26 August 2013
Fred Vargas is always very enjoyable. Her stories may sometimes be a bit far fetched but don't let that put you off. Similar in plotline to Agatha Christie but unlike Christie, Vargas's characters are wonderfully fleshed out.
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