The Sunday Times, 31 March 2013
After decades in which crime fiction in French was dominated by the Belgian author Georges Simenon, it has an indisputable new star in Fred Vargas (the pseudonym of the historian Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau). Her novels have scooped the CWA International Dagger on three occasions. The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, translated by Sian Reynolds (Harvill Secker £12.99/ebook £13.56), is the eighth in her Commissaire Adamsberg series and an early contender for outstanding crime novel of the year.
It opens in Paris, where Adamsberg is interviewing an elderly man whose wife has choked to death on breadcrumbs. It is a typically oblique opening, a domestic killing that has little to do with the spectacular murders that he is about to encounter in Normandy. Locals link the murders to a mythical troop of riders whose ghostly appearance always signals death. This piece of folklore fascinates Adamsberg, who understands that the apparitions are projections of the community’s desire for vengeance against people known for their cruelty to humans or animals.
It is the kind of superstition that flourishes in a rural community, brilliantly drawn in the novel, where class distinctions have existed for centuries. Patient and humane as ever, Adamsberg realises he needs to disentangle the myth to prove that it has been exploited by a very ingenious criminal.
Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano novels reach a much wider audience these days, thanks to a popular television adaptation. The Dance of the Seagull, translated by Stephen Sartarelli (Mantle £16.99/ebook £16.99), begins with Montalbano brooding in his Sicilian seaside apartment. His mood hasn’t improved since the last book in the series, The Age of Doubt, in which the fiftysomething inspector started to dwell on mortality. Now he’s awaiting the arrival of his long-suffering girlfriend Livia when a colleague disappears, driving all thoughts of a holiday out of his head.
Camilleri is a fine writer and the earlier Montalbano novels stand out in the ranks of modern crime fiction. Somehow the irascible inspector with a passion for food managed to avoid cliché even if there were elements that jarred, not least the ponderously stupid switchboard operator Catarella. But Montalbano’s preoccupations have begun to seem like those of a much older man and it’s hard to read the new novel without recalling that his creator is in his eighties.
Donna Leon has been writing novels set in Venice for more than two decades. American by birth, she has lived there for a quarter of a century and her familiarity with the city is a feature of her Commissario Brunetti novels. The Golden Egg (Heinemann £17.99/ebook £18.77) is the 22nd in the series; a deaf mute who worked at the dry-cleaner used by the Brunettis has been found dead in an apparent suicide and - Brunetti’s wife is dismayed to realise she doesn’t even know his name. The novel proceeds at a gentle pace, but Leon’s ability to portray her adopted country has been overtaken by grittier Italian authors who write in their own language.