on September 5, 2011
On a trip to London, Commissaire Adamsberg and his second-in-command, Commandant Danglard, go along on a Scotland Yard call to Highgate Cemetery, where they see a dozen-plus pairs of shoes----complete with severed feet----lined up as if to enter the gates. When they return to Paris, they are called to investigate a murder in which the victim's body has been pounded into unrecognizable pieces.
The investigation takes Adamsberg on a trip to Serbia to try to find the origin of what appears to be a centuries-old family curse involved in the murder of his Paris victim. His sleuthing leads to a connection between his Paris murder, the bizarre Highgate scene and corruption in high levels of French government. Not only that; he discovers that Blagojevic is a despised name in certain circles in Serbia, not just Illinois!
Along the way, Adamsberg delivers kittens, receives several chiropractic adjustments, is put in life-threatening danger twice, receives shocking news about his past, eats a lot of delicious-sounding Serbian food and gets quite an education in the lore of vampires. In other words, not your everyday mystery book.
The Adamsberg series is filled with indelible characters, from the shy, introspective, often-unfathomable but lady-killing Adamsberg, to his team of quirky investigators, to the always vividly-drawn characters who are unique to each title in the series. Where many detectives are cynical, hard-drinking tough guys, Adamsberg is wide open to life, with all its full spectrum of wonders. After viewing the unimaginably gruesome Paris crime scene, he observes to one of his detectives:
"'[W]hen you've seen something like that,' said Adamsberg softly, 'a bit of it sticks and stays inside you. Any experience that's too beautiful or too horrific always leaves some fragment of itself in the eyes of people who have witnessed it. We know that. In fact, that's how you recognize . . . [s]omething either overwhelmingly beautiful or overwhelmingly terrible . . . You recognize it by the shock, the little splinter that remains.'"
Here is Adamsberg on Lieutenant Retancourt, 110 kilograms (242.5 pounds) of raw power:
"Did she know that to him she represented his tree of salvation, a tree with tough and miraculous fruit, the kind of tree you put your arms around without being able to encircle it, the kind of tree you climb up into when the mouth of hell opens?"
In this book, there isn't nearly enough of Retancourt and the other members of the team, like Danglard, Froissy and Estalere. But there are other unconventional characters who assist Adamsberg, like Vladislav Moldovan, Adamsberg's Serbian translator, who is completely covered in sleek black hair and laughs at everything, and Émile, the pugnacious, small-time chiseler and murder suspect who has a weakness for a tiny terrier named Cupid.
With all the idiosyncratic characters and their often whimsical style, Vargas's books could easily descend into fatal cuteness, but they never do. There is a real depth of feeling to them, the stories and atmosphere are always unique and Vargas is able to convey a sense of place so real you will feel as if you've been on a trip. It's not for nothing that Vargas has won the prestigious International Dagger Award three times and been a finalist for Gold and International Dagger Awards an additional three times.
As another reviewer notes, this title can stand on its own; you don't have to have read the other books in the series first. However, you will appreciate the story better if you are more familiar with the recurring characters. I recommend reading the series in the following order:
The Chalk Circle Man: A Commissaire Adamsberg Mystery (Commissaire Adamsberg Mysteries)
Seeking Whom He May Devour: Chief Inspector Adamsberg Investigates (Chief Inspector Adamsberg Mysteries)
Have Mercy on Us All: A Novel (Chief Inspector Adamsberg Mysteries)
Wash This Blood Clean from My Hand: A Commissaire Adamsberg Mystery (Chief Inspector Adamsberg Mysteries)
This Night's Foul Work: A Commissaire Adamsberg Mystery (Chief Inspector Adamsberg Mysteries)
An Uncertain Place: A Commissaire Adamsberg Mystery