Review: Fred Vargas – The Ghost Riders of Ordebec

Ghost RidersMost of the books that I review on this blog are either by writers who I already enjoy, or ones that I’m keen to try. However, like all readers I have my favourite authors and Fred Vargas is one of them. She’s been translated very slowly into English. On my trips to France, I would see Vargas’s books in the supermarkets and curse the fact that my reading French wasn’t in a better state. I think with The Ghost Riders of Ordebec though, we are more or less up to date with the Adamsberg series, even if they have been translated out of order.

The previous book in the series, An Uncertain Place, took Adamsberg out of France to London and Serbia. It wasn’t one of Vargas’s best and I think she was wise to bring the location back to France. Adamsberg is visited in Paris by a woman whose daughter has see the legendary ghost riders that appear in Normandy and forewarn of death to those who appear in the vision. She is worried about the safety of her daughter and pleads with Adamsberg to help the family. His curiosity piqued, Adamsberg travels to the region and becomes embroiled in local politics as the prophecy begins to be fulfilled.

Vargas is a writer who divides her readers. Some fellow reviewers I know absolutely love her, and like me eagerly await each new novel. Others, who share similar tastes with me in relation to other writers, don’t get on with this author at all. It’s interesting that a writer can divide opinion so much. Part of the reason is the style of narration. There’s a sly humour to the writing that can extend to outright surreality. This is most clearly seen in the characterisation. Adamsberg is an off-beat, slow paced cop who takes an age to do things and works mainly on instinct. In his team are a binge-eater who hides snacks around the station, the statuesque Retancourt who casts a strange spell over men she meets, and Veyrenc who likes to speak in rhyming couplets. To be fair, these are part of the attraction to Vargas’s many fans but the quirkiness can also put people off.

After his Serbian excursions, Adamsberg is much better on home territory. Most of the book is set in Normandy, the location of a previous novel This Night’s Foul Work. The rural setting reads like somewhere out of a Balzac novel. You have a well-connected Comte, his unpleasant stepson and secret first marriage to a village girl. The ghost riders of the title are the mythical ‘furious army’ of northern Europe, a spectral group of huntsmen who flash across the sky and bring with them death and pestilence. In my part of England they are called the Gabriel Hounds and I was interested to read about the areas where they appear. With Vargas you are never quite sure where the interweaving of fact and fiction is going to take you. The ghost riders give the book a supernatural element but you are never completely taken in that direction. Instead it is the motifs – in this book the prevalence of sugar lumps that keep appearing in relation to the  case – that are compelling for the reader.

This is Vargas back on form and, considering that she has won the CWA International dagger three times already, this book must be a strong contender for the short-list.

Thanks to Karen at Eurocrime who gave me her copy of this book.

28 thoughts on “Review: Fred Vargas – The Ghost Riders of Ordebec

  1. Margot Kinberg

    Sarah – I like Vargas too, and it’s good to hear that Adamsberg is back on his ‘patch’ on this one. I think the setting really does add to this series. And it’s interesting you would mention readers’ reaction to Vargas’ work. She is one of those authors whose work you really either like very much or you don’t at all. To me that’s a sign of her innovation and willingness to go ‘outside the lines.’ An excellent review as ever, for which thanks.


    1. Thanks Margot. I’ve noticed for a while that Vargas splits her readers. I’ve been looking forward to this book for well over 6 months. Am glad everything is back in France.


  2. I have only read the first book (Chalk Circle Man) and I was not impressed with it. I think the fact that Adamsberg operates mainly on instinct bothered me. But I have read so many reviews by readers who love the books, I am going to try again. I have one or two more in the series.


    1. I think ‘The Chalk Circle Man’ is fairly representative of Vargas, Tracy. So it may be that she’s not for you. There’s usually a logic amongst the plot – it’s just the extraneous things can obscure it.


  3. I am a Vargas fan, like you are. And I too was relieved that Adamsberg is back in Paris/France for this one. I thought it a bit tamer, quieter, dare I say cosier than other ones, but I loved it nevertheless!


    1. You’re the second person who’s mentioned the tamer aspect of this novel. I hadn’t thought about that but you’re right. It is perhaps more ‘cosy’ than previous Vargas books.


  4. Sarah,
    I’d love to read this Vargas title. I will look for them. I don’t get the chance very often to comment, but I very much enjoy reading your posts. Despite my best intentions, I don’t keep up with my reading well during the semester either, which I am continually trying to change, but to no effect. I’m eternally hopeful, however, that I will!

    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)


    1. Thanks Judith and I’m glad you’re enjoying your posts. I stop by on your blog often too, but like you I don’t always comment. I can tell from your updates that you are very busy but you seem to have some nice libraries and bookshops near you. I hope you’ll like the Vargas if you get the chance to read it.


  5. I hadn’t realised that lots of readers dislike Adamsberg. I wonder why. I suppose Adamsberg is in the line of eccentric detectives that goes back to Sherlock Holmes and therefore will not appeal to readers who prefer more procedural stuff about forensics et cetera. I had thought Vargas must be of Hungarian origin but my piano tuner, who is French, told me the other day that she took the name from a minor character in Casablanca.


    1. HI thanks for stopping by and commenting. I agree that you can trace the eccentricities of Adamsberg right back to Sherlock Holmes (whom I love too). Is Vargas a Hungarian name then? I hadn’t realised this but it would make sense. I didn’t realise the Casablanca connection which is a nice touch,


  6. kathy d.

    I love Fred Vargas’ books. It’s because they are brilliant, creative and go where no author will go. I’m quite willing to go where her inventive mind goes, and appreciate the quirkiness. If I wanted a formulaic read, I’d go to the supermarket, drugstore or airport bookshelves or the “best-seller” section of my library (alas!).
    I’ve never been bored reading these books. I have to think. I laugh and smile at the characters’ antics and idiosyncracies.
    And, I know that Vargas is being provocative with the readers, including at the end of An Uncertain Place. I think she wants us to be puzzled and be entertained and wonder what’s happening — and not always have every, single question wrapped up neatly. That’s part of the charm of her writing.
    I can’t wait to read this book. I’ll put everything aside when it arrives, and put my “Don’t bother me, I’m reading” sign outside my door.


    1. That sign will definitely be in use for this book Kathy. It’s a cracker. I too love her inventiveness and the charm with which she writes. I never quite know where she is going to take us and that’s part of the enjoyment of the book. And yes it makes me smile too.


  7. kathy d.

    I find it intriguing that readers have such strong feelings about Fred Vargas’ writing, but then again I think it is wholly a good development and totally human that each person has such likes and dislikes regarding culture: books, movies, art, music, etc. I used to hear friends argue vociferously about movies. Then I realized that individual views of cultural phenomenon are interesting, and help each of us expand our thinking and learn to appreciate each other’s opinions.


    1. Thanks Melinda. Vargas is definitely an author to try. I’ve just taken a look at your blog and given some of the writers you like, I think Vargas might appeal too. I’ve added your blog to my feed!


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  9. I like Vargas for her sheer quirkiness and verve, her inventive plots where how she can make the mundane mysterious (like a tree suddenly springing up) and reconcile the supernatural to more rationalistic explanations (ghosts, werewolves turning out to be having valid explanations). Does ‘Veyrenc’ continue to be a character in the series, I would have thought he would be a one-off character, but interesting guy.


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