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Extract: The Accordionist by Fred Vargas

The Accordionist is the final novel in the Three Evangelists trilogy by France’s utterly original bestselling crime writer – Fred Vargas.

When two Parisian women are shockingly murdered in their homes, the police suspect young accordionist Clément Vauquer, who was seen outside both of the apartments in question. It seems on the surface like an open-and-shut case.

But now Clément has disappeared from public view. His likeness has appeared in the papers and detectives from Paris to Nevers are on his tail. To have a chance of proving his innocence, he seeks refuge with old Marthe, a former prostitute and the only mother figure he has known.

Marthe calls ex-special investigator Louis Kehlweiler to help Clément. But what Louis uncovers is anything but straightforward, and he must call on some unconventional friends to help him solve his most complex case yet. Not only must Louis try to prove Clément’s innocence, he must solve a fiendish riddle to lead him to the killer…

Read on for the first chapter of The Accordionist, translated by Sian Reynolds…

The Accordionist
Fred Vargas


        Louis Kehlweiler threw the newspaper down on the table. He’d seen enough and felt no urge to turn straight to page 6. Later maybe, when the whole business had calmed down, he’d cut out the article and file it.
        He went into the kitchen and opened a bottle of beer. The last but one. He wrote a big B on the back of his hand in biro. In this July heatwave, you had to increase your fluid intake. Tonight he would sit down to read the latest about the government reshuffle, the rail strike, and the melons that French farmers had dumped on the roads. And he’d keep calm, avoiding page 6.
        Shirt unbuttoned, bottle in hand, Louis went back to work. He was translating a huge biography of Bismarck. It was well paid, and he was counting on living for several months off the Iron Chancellor. He carried on for a page, then stopped, his hands hovering over the keyboard. His thoughts had left Bismarck and were focused on a box with a lid, big enough to hold all his shoes and offering one way of decluttering his cupboard.
        Feeling rather annoyed with himself, he pushed back his chair, then paced across the room, running his hand through his hair. A shower of summer rain was hammering on the zinc roof overhead. The translation was going well, no reason to get anxious. Thoughtfully, he passed a finger over the back of his pet toad which was sleeping on his desk, snug inside the basket for pencils. He leaned across and read out quietly from the screen the sentence he was in the middle of translating: ‘In those early days of May, it is unlikely that the thought had crossed Bismarck’s mind…’ Then his eyes fell once more on the newspaper, lying folded on the table.
        ‘PARIS KILLER STRIKES AGAIN! SEE PAGE 6.’ Never mind, back to work, nothing to do with him. He returned to the screen, where the Iron Chancellor was waiting for him. No need to trouble his head about page 6. Quite simply, it wasn’t his job any more. His job, just now, was to translate stuff from German into French, and to say as clearly as possible why, in those first days of May, Bismarck had not yet thought of… something or other. A calm, instructive occupation that paid the bills.
        Louis typed another twenty or so lines. He had reached: ‘For indeed at this stage, there is no evidence that he had taken offence…’ when he broke off again. His mind had returned to the box and was obstinately trying to resolve the question of the untidy pile of shoes at the bottom of the wardrobe.
        He got to his feet, took the last beer out of the fridge and sipped it standing up. He wasn’t fooled. If his thoughts were turning to domestic reorganisation, it was a sign of something. In fact, he knew very well that it was a sign of disturbance. Disturbance to his current plans, with his ideas wandering in trivial directions, a niggling mental blockage. It wasn’t so much that he was thinking about his jumble of shoes that bothered him. Anyone could have that kind of thought from time to time, without making a big deal out of it. No, it was that he was actually getting some pleasure from the thought.
        Louis took another swig or two. Shirts, too. Yes, he’d thought about sorting out his shirts, no more than a week ago.
        No question, this was a serious crisis. Only people who don’t know what the hell to do with themselves start thinking about decluttering, for want of being able to set the world to rights. He put the beer bottle on the kitchen counter and went to look at the newspaper. Because, in the end, it was on account of these wretched murders that he was on the brink of a domestic calamity, namely reorganising his lodgings from top to bottom. Not because of Bismarck, no, no. He had no quarrel with a figure from the past who provided him with a living. That wasn’t the problem.
        The problem was those damned murders. Two women murdered in two weeks, the whole country was talking about it, and he was obsessing about them too, as if he had any right to think about them and their killer, whereas it was absolutely none of his business.
        After that affair with the dog and the grill round the tree in the Place de l’Estrapade, he’d decided he was going to give up on crime: it was ridiculous to embark on a career as an unpaid criminal investigator, simply on the grounds that he’d picked up bad habits during the previous twenty-five years, carrying out special inquiries for the Ministry of the Interior. As long as he had had an official position, the work had seemed legitimate. Now that he was left to his own devices, the job of private eye seemed somehow sleazy, like being a shit-stirrer or a scalp-hunter. Poking about in crimes when nobody had asked you to, grabbing the newspapers the moment they came out, filing away piles of articles, what else was that but a creepy distraction, and a very questionable way of leading your life?
        And that was how Kehlweiler, a man all too ready to suspect himself before suspecting anyone else, had turned his back on being an unofficial private eye, something that had seemed suddenly to veer between the perverted and the grotesque, and to which the most suspect part of himself seemed to be drawn. But now, stoically reduced to the company of Otto von Bismarck, he had surprised his thoughts in the act of turning to domestic decluttering. You start with a plastic box and who knows where you will end up.
        Louis dropped the empty bottle into the bin. He glanced over at his desk where the folded newspaper crouched menacingly. Bufo, the toad, had momentarily emerged from his slumber to install himself on top of it. Louis lifted him off gently. He considered his toad to be an impostor. He was pretending to hibernate, at the height of summer what was more, but that was just a ruse: he moved when you weren’t looking. Truth to tell, Bufo, having been affected by his state of domesticity, had lost his innate knowledge of hibernation, but refused to admit it, because he was too proud.
        ‘You’re a ridiculous purist!’ Louis told him, as he put him back in the pencil basket. ‘Your phoney hibernation isn’t impressing anyone. Just stick to what you know about.’
        Slowly, he slid the newspaper across the desk towards him.
        He hesitated for a moment, then opened it at page 6. ‘PARIS KILLER STRIKES AGAIN!

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