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Review: A Climate of Fear by Fred Vargas

European crime tends to focus on the colder climates – but go a little further south to France’s capital and you’ll find Commissaire Adamsberg and his serious crime squad. They make for an eclectic mix; Adamsberg himself has his head in the clouds but always manages to see through the fog of clues to find the truth. His team includes a man whose memory gets sharper the more he drinks, another who sleeps every three hours, his childhood enemy, and his protector who is named after a flower but, when she needs to be, is less than delicate.

Over the last seven novels (and one as of yet untranslated graphic novel), Vargas has mixed these wonderful personalities with gruesome but often quirky crimes to solve. Their investigations have varied from werewolves to mysterious nuns to mementos in chalk circles. This time they’re mixed up in murders with connections to both Iceland and the Association for the Study of Writings of Maximilian Robespierre which gives them a wider and weirder mix of suspects.

Robespierre became an important figure during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, which was marked by the mass executions of “enemies of the revolution.” The investigation seems to be going nowhere with Adamsberg, with his team accusing him of looking in all in the wrong places. But he’s got an itch that he needs to scratch, which is his alone – the others don’t seem to feel it. A climate of revolution creeps into the team the longer they continue investigate two apparent suicides and a mysterious symbol which could be linked somehow to Iceland and the association.

The association gives Vargas the opportunity to discuss French history and its impact on the present. But the question is what impact is it having on those involved in the crime? Vargas makes you keep reading to find out.

Even though A Climate of Fear is part of a longer series it works well as a standalone story. Knowing their combined history makes one of the subplots break your heart a little more but Vargas deftly fills in any blanks about the squad’s individual quirks and relationships – explaining, for example, why the office cat, who sleeps on the photocopier, has to be carried upstairs to have company while they eat before being carried back down.

Siân Reynolds, who has translated all bar two of Fred Vargas’s novels into English, deserves a mention. She’s been recognised along with Vargas previously as the winner of the CWA International Dagger award – rightly so, as translation is an art and a science – and for A Climate of Fear they both deserve to win another.

Find out more about the books in the Commissaire Adamsberg series here.

Gavin Pugh

Gavin is a blogger, soon-to-be vlogger, and the host of the reading-related podcast An Unreliable Reader.

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