Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Night of the Lone Wolf

Le mardi, il y eut quatre brebis égorgées à Ventebrune, dans les Alpes. Et le jeudi, neuf à Pierrefort. « Les loups, dit un vieux. Ils descendent sur nous. »

L’autre vida son verre, leva la main. « Un loup, Pierrot, un loup. Une bête comme t’en as jamais vu. Qui descend sur nous. »


On Tuesday, four sheep were killed at Ventebrune in the French Apls. On Thursday, nine were lost at Pierrefort. “It’s the wolves,” a local said. “They’re coming down to eat us all up.”

The other man drained his glass, then raised his hand. “A wolf, Pierrot, my lad. It’s a wolf. A beast such as you have never clapped eyes on before. Coming down, as you say, to eat us all up.”

Opening dialogue of L’homme à l’envers (“Seeking Whom He May Devour”)

When I was returning to Canada from Portugal, we took an Air France flight first to Paris and then to Toronto. At the airport, I found a bookstore/general newsstand and bought five books by French authors. Three of these were by Fred Vargas, a decision prompted by the intriguing summary on the back of L’homme à l’envers (meaning literally “The Inside-Out Man”, though a translation has been published with the inferior title of “Seeking Whom He May Devour”).

Unfortunately, my French edition is another entry in the Hall of Shame I recently started on this blog. This is the worst editing I’ve come across in a long time. On several occasions, the editor completely botched his job. For instance, bits and pieces of other chapters suddenly interrupted the conclusion of the chapter I was reading, making me seriously doubt both my sanity and my ability to understand French. It’s a level of complete, drunken sloppiness that is entirely unacceptable. What on earth happened???  Could my French readers confirm whether this kind of lousy editing is the standard for Éditions J’ai Lu?

But back to the plot of L’homme à l’envers. The story revolves around Commissaire Adamsberg, who becomes involved in a bizarre and gruesome series of serial killings that have apparently been perpetrated by a werewolf. It started with a series of sheep massacres. Then, a woman named Suzanne accused the village recluse, Massart, of being a werewolf responsible for the attacks. Her accusation is based on Massart’s having no body hair, which keeps in line with an old French superstition that in the daytime, the werewolf turns his skin inside out, leaving the hair on the inside…

Unfortunately for Suzanne, the day after she makes her accusation she is found brutally killed by a wolf. Some people believe that Massart is responsible. He conveniently disappears, and a series of sheep slaughters start up again. These take place along a route Massart had mapped for himself. The police refuse to take the situation seriously. Thus, a group of people decide to take a lorry (driven by the feisty Camille) and go after Massart, following the trail of his massacres. A bit over halfway through the book, people start to die as well, and a puzzle element is thrown into the works: what connection do the victims have to each other? Or were they simply chosen at random?

Vargas’ writing is incredible. While reviewing books here, I’ve gotten quite fond of the work of another French author, Paul Halter, a genius in plotting but whose style is often flawed. Vargas’ style, on the other hand, is incredible. Her writing seems effortless, and she easily conveys an aura of the supernatural. Tension and fear leap off the page, and the book starts with opening dialogue that is simply bone-chilling. (I quoted it and the translation’s version to start the review.) Vargas gets away with social commentary, flashbacks to childhood, and the like, because she never loses sight of her plot. She even introduces a thrilling side-plot with a satisfying conclusion about an assassination attempt on Adamsberg. It is little wonder that Vargas is France’s Queen of Crime, with writing of this calibre.

The characters are excellent: they are well-delineated and the reader gets to know them and care for them. At the same time, pages are not wasted on futile descriptions or character angst. Vargas knows she has a hell of a story to tell and she tells it with great zest. Adamsberg’s detection method is basically sitting and thinking, letting pieces of the puzzle float in and piece themselves together. This seems to me like another nod to great fictional detectives of the past, like Dr. Gideon Fell.

On the flipside, the mystery is not great. I was surprised to see Vargas slipped in a few clues that I missed (clues that reminded me of some classic mysteries), but other clues are entirely withheld and the connection between the victims is pedestrian at best, particularly since the key piece of information has been withheld. It would have been difficult to hide the clue’s implication if it was presented, but the challenge should be embraced. Taking the easy way out is just unsatisfying.

And yet it doesn’t seem to matter much in the end. Vargas’ writing is wonderful and her work will definitely reappear on this blog, even if other editions botch up the editing. As for the English translation of L’homme à l’envers, published as Seeking Whom He May Devour, I slightly dislike the title change. I’ve taken a cursory glance at it, comparing random sections with those of the French version, and overall, it seems well-done. Maps of France and its south-east region are provided to the reader, who is likely unfamiliar with the region. It’s a wise move, although you won’t need the map for fancy trigonometric calculations to figure out the next victim’s location.

Overall, L’homme à l’envers is a top-notch thrill ride, a decent mystery, and plenty of fun. The only downside is my edition’s text, which seems to have been edited by a drunkard. But leaving that aside, I’m glad I read the book.


  1. I actually have one of her novels on my shelves, This Nights Foul Work, but never got around to reading it. Heck, I nearly had forgotten it was sitting there... patiently waiting. Your positive impression might actually save the book from not being read.

  2. I like these books. THE CHALK CIRCLE MAN, the very first book in the Adamsberg series, is markedly different and very fun. It's probably the closest thing Vargas wrote to a traditioanl Golden Age style mystery and has a loopy surprise ending that made me laugh out loud. It's my favorite of her books because of the outrageous twist at the end. I also liked the eccentricity on display in THE THREE EVANGELISTS - featuring a completely different sets of series characters who she abandoned when she started writing about Adamsberg. That book has an impossible problem - the appearance overnight of a fully grown tree in a closed garden. You may want to track it down.

    I don't see anything wrong with the more literary title, even if it is heavy-handed in the allusion. The literal English translation of Vargas' original title is THE MAN FROM HELL, right? And the quote from the epistle of Peter refers to the Devil, after all. So the titles are related. It's more evocative, I think, and has more to do with the crimes and sheep slaughter than Vargas' title which conjures up cliche horror movie images to me.

  3. "The Three Evangelists" is I believe the translation of "Debout les Morts", which I bought. (The French title is a good one. I think "Rise, Ye Dead" gets the gist of it across.)

    No, the literal translation into English is "The Inside Out Man", which I really liked for evoking the traditional image of the werewolf. "Seeking whom he may devour" is from the Bible, and I saw it in a passage of the translation, so perhaps it's more prominent there.

  4. Oh. I guess I was thinking of L'enfers. L'envers is quite different. Elementary French already going out the window. BUT! I just realized it could be a pun in French.

    Yes, I know the epistle of Peter is from the Bible. Trust a Catholic (albeit a lapsed one) to know his New Testament. The full quote is: "Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walks about, seeking whom he may devour."

  5. Oh, I was simply agreeing with you there, not trying to lord my superior Catholic Bible knowledge over anyone or anything of the sort. It was my hand-wavey way of referring to the passage without looking it up or massively misquoting. (Why yes, I *AM* lazy. How did you guess?)

    After flipping through the English translation a bit more, I've come across the phrase "Seeking whom he may devour" quite often. So perhaps it works well as a title for the translation.

  6. Abebooks has many of Fred Vargas' works for quite cheap. I think this is something I could get into.


  7. And there's always the wonderful world of the library. I took a look at Windsor's catalogue and they have a handful of Vargas' stuff.