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.