Top positive review
One person found this helpful
Quirky and lyrical
on 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.