"Wry humor and offbeat plots blend with a subtly dangerous charm to make Fred Vargas the queen of French crime writers." —Martin Walker, author of the Bruno, Chief of Police Series
“A wildly imaginative series.”—The New York Times
Awarded the International Dagger by the Crime Writers' Association four times, Fred Vargas has earned a reputation in Europe as a mystery author of the first order. In This Night's Foul Work, the intuitive Commissaire Adamsberg teams up with Dr. Ariane, a pathologist with whom he crossed paths twenty years ago, to unravel a beguiling mystery that begins with the discovery of two bodies in Paris's Porte de la Chapelle. Adamsberg believes it may be the work of a killer with split personalities, who is choosing his or her victims very carefully. As other murders begin to surface, Adamsberg must move quickly in order to stop the "Angel of Death" from killing again.
About the Author
Fred Vargas is a French medieval historian and archaeologist who has a parallel career as a bestselling crime novelist. She adopted the pseudonym from her twin sister, an artist who works as Jo Vargas—after Ava Gardner’s character in The Barefoot Contessa. She has published ten mysteries, five of which feature Commissaire Adamsberg. Her detective fiction is published in 32 languages.
Read an Excerpt
By fixing his curtain to one side with a clothes-peg, Lucio could better observe the new neighbour at his leisure. The newcomer, who was small and dark, had stripped to the waist despite the chilly March breeze and was building a wall of breeze-blocks without using a plumb line. After an hour’s watching, Lucio shook his head abruptly, like a lizard emerging from its motionless siesta. He removed his unlit cigarette from his mouth.
‘That one,’ he said, pronouncing his final diagnosis, ‘has no more ballast in his head than in his hands. He’s going his own sweet way without the rule book. Pleasing himself.’
‘Let him get on with it, then,’ said his daughter, without conviction.
‘I know what I have to do, Maria.’
‘You just enjoy upsetting other people, don’t you, with your old wives’ tales?’
Her father clicked his tongue disapprovingly.
‘You wouldn’t talk like that if you had trouble sleeping. The other night I saw her, clear as I see you.’
‘Yes, you told me.’
‘She went past the windows on the first floor, slowly like the ghost.’
‘Yes,’ Maria said again, with indifference.
The old man had risen to his feet and was leaning on his stick.
‘It’s as if she was waiting for the new owner to arrive, as if she was getting ready to stalk her prey. That man over there, I mean,’ he added, jerking his chin at the window.
‘The neighbour?’ said Maria. ‘It’ll just go in one ear and out the other, you know.’
‘What he does after that’s up to him. Pass me a cigarette — I’m going over there.’
Maria placed the cigarette in her father’s mouth and lit it.
‘Maria, for the love of God, take off the filter.’
Doing as she was asked, Maria helped her father on with his coat. Then she slipped into his pocket a little radio, from which a hiss of background noise and muffled voices emerged. The old man wouldn’t be parted from it.
‘Don’t go scaring the neighbour now, will you,’ she said, knotting his scarf.
‘Oh, the neighbour’s had worse than this to cope with, believe me.’
Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg had been working on his wall, unperturbed by the watchful gaze of the old man across the way but wondering when he would be coming over to test him out in person. He watched as a tall figure with striking, deeply scored features and a shock of white hair walked across the little garden at a dignified pace. He was about to hold out his hand to shake when he saw that the man’s right arm stopped short at the elbow. Adamsberg raised his trowel as a sign of welcome, and looked at him with a calm and neutral expression.
‘I could lend you my plumb line,’ the old man said civilly.
‘I’ll manage,’ said Adamsberg, fitting another breeze-block into place. ‘Where I come from, we always put up walls by guesswork, and they haven’t fallen down yet. They might lean sometimes, but they don’t fall down.’
‘Are you a bricklayer?’
‘No. I’m a cop. Commissaire de police.’
The old man leaned his stick against the new wall and buttoned his inner jacket up to his chin, giving himself time to absorb the information.
‘You go after drug dealers? Stuff like that?’
‘No, corpses. I work in the Serious Crime Squad.’
‘I see,’ said the old man, after registering a slight shock. ‘My speciality was the bench.’
‘Not the Judge’s Bench, wooden benches. I used to sell them.’
A joker in days gone by, thought Adamsberg, smiling at his new neighbour with understanding. The old man seemed well able to amuse himself without any help from anyone else. A joker, yes, a man with a sense of humour, but those dark eyes saw right through you.
‘Parquet floors too. Oak, beech, pine. If you need anything, let me know. Your house has nothing but tiles on the floor.’
‘Not as warm as wood. Velasco’s the name. Lucio Velasco Paz. The shop’s called Velasco Paz and Daughter.’
Lucio Velasco smiled broadly, but his gaze did not leave Adamsberg’s face, inspecting it thoroughly. The old man was working up to an announcement. He had something to tell him.
‘Maria runs the business now. She’s got a good head on her shoulders, so don’t go running to her with stories, she doesn’t like it.’
‘What sort of stories would those be?’
‘Ghost stories, for instance,’ said the old man, screwing up his dark eyes.
‘No chance. I don’t know any ghost stories.’
‘People say that, and then one day they do know one.’
‘Maybe. For all I know. Your radio isn’t tuned properly, monsieur. Would you like me to fix it?’
‘To listen to the programmes.’
‘No, hombre. I don’t want to listen to their rubbish. At my age, you’ve earned the right not to put up with it.’
‘Yes, of course,’ said Adamsberg.
If the neighbour wanted to carry around in his pocket a radio that wasn’t tuned to any programme, and call him ‘hombre’, that was up to him.
The old man staged another pause as he watched Adamsberg line up his breeze-blocks.
‘Like the house, do you?’
‘Yes, very much.’
Lucio made a joke under his breath and burst out laughing. Adamsberg smiled politely. There was something youthful about Lucio’s laughter, whereas the rest of his demeanour suggested that he was more or less responsible for the destiny of mankind.
‘A hundred and fifty square metres.’ The old man was speaking again. ‘With a garden, an open fireplace, a cellar, and a woodshed. You can’t find anything like this in Paris nowadays. Did you ever ask yourself why it was going so cheap?’
‘Because it’s old and run-down, I suppose.’
‘And did you never wonder why it hadn’t been demolished either?’
‘Well, it’s at the end of a cul-de-sac — it’s not in anyone’s way.’
‘All the same, hombre. No buyer in the six years it’s been on the market. Didn’t that bother you?’
‘Monsieur Velasco, it takes a lot to bother me.’
Adamsberg scraped off the surplus cement with his trowel.
‘Well, just suppose for a moment that it did bother you,’ insisted the old man. ‘Suppose you asked yourself why nobody had bought this house.’
‘Let me see. It’s got an outside privy. People don’t like that these days.’
‘They could have built an extension to reach it, as you’re doing now.’
‘I’m not doing it for myself. It’s for my wife and son.’
‘God’s sakes, you’re not going to bring a woman to live here, are you?’
‘No, I don’t think so. They’ll just come now and then.’
‘But this woman, your wife. She’s not proposing to sleep here, is she?’
Adamsberg frowned as the old man gripped his arm to gain his attention.
‘Don’t go thinking you’re stronger than anyone else,’ said the old man, more calmly. ‘Sell up. These are things that pass our understanding. They’re beyond our knowing.’
Lucio shifted his now extinguished cigarette in his mouth.
‘See this?’ he said raising his right arm, which ended in a stump.
‘Yes, said Adamsberg, with respect.
‘I lost that when I was nine years old, during the Civil War.’
‘And sometimes it still itches. It itches on the part of my arm that isn’t there, sixty-nine years later. In the same place, always the same place,’ said the old man, pointing to a space in the air. ‘My mother knew why. It was the spider’s bite. When I lost my arm, I hadn’t finished scratching. So it goes on itching.’
‘Yes, I see,’ said Adamsberg, mixing his cement quietly.
‘Because the spider’s bite hadn’t finished its life — do you understand what I’m saying? It wants its dues, it’s taking its revenge. Does that remind you of anything?’
‘The stars,’ Adamsberg suggested. ‘They go on shining long after they’re dead.’
‘All right, yes,’ admitted the old man, surprised. ‘Or feelings. If a fellow goes on loving a girl, or the other way round, when it’s all over, see what I mean?’
‘But why does he go on loving the girl, or the other way round? What explains it?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Adamsberg patiently.
Between gusts of wind, the hesitant March sunshine was warming his back, and he was quite happy to be there, building his wall in this overgrown garden. Lucio Velasco Paz could go on talking all he wanted, it wouldn’t bother Adamsberg.
‘It’s quite simple. It’s because the feeling hasn’t run its course. It’s beyond our control, that kind of thing. You have to wait for it to finish, go on scratching till the end. And if you die before you’ve run your life’s course, same thing. People who’ve been murdered, they go on hanging about, their presence makes you itch non-stop.’
‘Like spider bites,’ said Adamsberg, bringing the conversation back full circle.
‘Like ghosts,’ said the old man, seriously. ‘Now do you understand why nobody wanted your house? Because it’s haunted, hombre.’
Adamsberg finished cleaning his cement board and wiped his hands.
‘Well, why not?’ he said. ‘Doesn’t bother me. I’m used to things that pass my understanding.’
Lucio tilted his chin and looked at Adamsberg sadly. ‘It’s you, hombre, who won’t get past her, if you try to be clever. What is it with you? You reckon you’re stronger than her?’
‘Her? You’re talking about a woman, then?’
‘Yes, a ghostly woman from the century before the one before, the time before the Revolution. Ancient wickedness, a shade from the past.’
The commissaire ran his hand slowly over the rough surface of the breeze-blocks.
‘Indeed,’ he said, suddenly pensive. ‘A shade, you said?’
Adamsberg was making coffee in the large kitchen-living room of his new house, still feeling unaccustomed to the space. The light glanced in through the small window-panes, and shone on the ancient red floor-tiles dating from the century before the one before. The room smelled of damp, of woodsmoke, of the new oilcloth on the table, an atmosphere that reminded him of his childhood home in the mountains, when he thought about it. He put two cups without saucers on the table, in a rectangular patch of sunlight. His neighbour was sitting bolt upright, clasping his knee with his good hand. That hand was large enough to strangle an ox between its thumb and index finger, having apparently doubled in size to compensate for the absence of the other.
‘You wouldn’t have anything to pep up the coffee, by any chance? If that’s not too much trouble.’
Lucio looked suspiciously at the garden, while Adamsberg searched for something alcoholic in the cases he had not yet unpacked.
‘Your daughter wouldn’t like a drink, would she?’ asked the commissaire.
‘She doesn’t encourage me.’
‘Now what’s this one?’ asked Adamsberg, pulling out a bottle from a tea chest.
‘A Sauternes, I’d say,’ was the opinion of the old man, screwing up his eyes like an ornithologist identifying a bird from a distance. ‘It’s a bit early in the day for a Sauternes.’
‘Doesn’t seem to be anything else here.’
‘We’ll settle for that, then,’ decreed the old man.
Adamsberg poured him a glass and sat down alongside, letting his back feel the patch of sunlight.
‘How much do you know about the house?’ Lucio asked.
‘That the last owner hanged herself in the upstairs room,’ said Adamsberg, pointing at the ceiling. ‘And that’s why nobody wanted the house. But that doesn’t worry me.’
‘Because you’ve seen plenty of hanged people?’
‘I’ve seen a few. But it’s not the dead who’ve ever troubled me. It’s their killers.’
‘We’re not talking about the real dead here, hombre, we’re talking about the others, the ones who won’t go away. And she’s never gone away.’
‘The one who hanged herself?’
‘No, the one who hanged herself did go away,’ explained Lucio, swallowing a gulp of wine, as if to recognise the event. ‘Do you know why she hanged herself?’
‘It was the house that made her go mad. All the women who’ve lived here have been troubled by the ghost. And then they die.’
‘The convent ghost. A silent one. That’s why the street is called the rue des Mouettes.’
‘I don’t follow,’ said Adamsberg, pouring out coffee.
‘There used to be a convent here, in the century before the one before. Nuns who were forbidden to speak.’
‘A silent order.’
‘Right. It used to be called the rue des Muettes, the Street of Silent Women, but as people forgot the real name, and said it wrong, they started to call it the rue des Mouettes, which just means the Street of Seagulls.’
‘Nothing to do with birds, then,’ said Adamsberg, disappointed.
‘No, they were nuns, but the old name was harder to pronounce. Anyway, one of these silent sisters dishonoured the house. With the devil, they say. Well, I have to admit, there isn’t any evidence for that bit.’
‘So what do you have evidence of, Monsieur Velasco?’ asked Adamsberg, smiling.
‘You can call me Lucio. Oh yes, there’s evidence all right. There was a trial at the time, in 1771. The convent was closed and the house had to be purified. The wicked Silent Sister had managed to get herself called Saint Clarisse. She promised any women prepared to come up with a sum of money and go through a ceremony that they would have a place in paradise. What these poor women didn’t know was that they were going straight there. When they turned up with their purses full of cash, she cut their throats. Seven of them she killed. Seven, hombre. But one night, she got her come-uppance.’
Lucio laughed like a boy, then gathered himself once more.
‘We shouldn’t laugh at anyone so wicked,’ he said. ‘The spider bite’s itching again, that’s my punishment.’
Adamsberg watched as Lucio scratched in the air with his left hand, waiting placidly for the rest of the story.
‘Does it help when you scratch it?’
‘Just for a moment, then it starts up again. Well, on the night of 3 January 1771, one more old woman turned up to see Saint Clarisse, hoping to buy her way into paradise. But this time the woman’s son, who was suspicious, and mean, came along with her. He was a tanner. And he killed the so-called saint. Like that,’ said Lucio, crashing his fist down in the table. ‘He beat her to pulp with his huge hands. Are you with me so far?’
Reading Group Guide
"O Earth, when I query, why disdain to reply?
And of this night's foul work all knowledge now deny?
Has the key been withheld, or are my ears too weak
To hear of thy suff'ring, a sin too great to speak?"
—This Night's Foul Work (p. 112)
Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is headed toward one of his toughest cases at the moment he is most in need of respite. He has only recently returned from a particularly dangerous assignment in Canada* and—on top of that—is still unsettled by the recent death of his father and his estrangement from Camille, the mother of his infant son. But Adamsberg is second-in-command of Paris's Serious Crimes Squad. Peace is a luxury he can seldom afford, especially when a double murder and a shade from his own past threaten to turn his eccentric but devoted squad upside down.
The case should be open and shut: two small-time crooks are found with their throats slashed—and needle marks in their arms—in the seedy Porte de la Chapelle neighborhood. The narcotics division is eager to claim both victims but Adamsberg is certain the crimes are not drug-related. Fortunately, eminent pathologist Dr. Ariane Lagarde shares Adamsberg's opinion. A renowned expert in criminal psychology as well as a former colleague, she determines that the killer is a woman and the needle marks a red herring, buying Adamsberg twenty-four hours to bring in solid evidence and back up his suspicions.
However, a prior commitment interferes with the case and so—as his squad pursues leads—Adamsberg drives 136 kilometers to babysit his son, Thomas, while Camille performs with a touring orchestra in the small Norman village of Haroncourt. During a brief stop in a local bar, Adamsberg becomes embroiled in a discussion surrounding the mysterious killing and evisceration of a locally renowned stag. He dismisses the incident but, upon his return to Paris, newly unearthed evidence sends him back to Haroncourt when the villagers there inform him of another deer killing.
The already tricky investigation is further complicated by the recent escape of a deranged female serial killer with a grudge against Adamsberg, and by the disconcerting presence of Lieutenant Louis Veyrenc de Bilhc, the unit's new recruit. Diffident yet charismatic and handsome with distinctive brown hair streaked with red, Veyrenc has very personal motives for transferring to Serious Crimes—and Adamsberg is at the heart of them. Veyrenc speaks largely in verse but it is his silent reproach that heightens tensions as the team leaps to defend their commissaire in a feud whose history they know nothing about.
Literally chasing after shadows, Adamsberg connects the double murder to first one "accidental" death and then an ever-growing web of enigmatic crimes and corpses. But just as he begins to comprehend the killer's bizarre and sinister motives, Adamsberg finds one of his own staff has gone missing and that he himself may be targeted for death.
The second of Fred Vargas's internationally acclaimed novels to be published in the United States by Penguin, This Night's Foul Work is an elegant tale whose horrors deepen with every page, while Commissaire Adamsberg is a delightfully idiosyncratic detective who is quickly winning over fans of intelligent and compulsively readable literary mysteries.
*Read Wash This Blood Clean from My Hands for details
ABOUT ABOUT FRED VARGAS
Fred Vargas is the pseudonym of French historian, archaeologist, and writer Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau. She worked at the French National Scientific Research Centre and later at the Institut Pasteur specializing in epidemiology of the Black Death and bubonic plague. She has written eleven novels, five of which have been translated into English.
- Discuss the recurring metaphor of Lucio's spider bite.
- Old grudges and the desire for revenge are a central theme of this novel. How far do you feel Veyrenc would be justified in pursuing his revenge? How would you act in his position?
- Why does Veyrenc think of Camille as "the grain of sand" (p. 31)?
- "Sometimes," Adamsberg suggests, "it's harder to get on with your neighbour than with a perfect stranger" (p. 80). How does the distrust of neighbors inform the events of the novel?
- "As a girl, Retancourt had already been massively built and she had decided that defeatism was her only defence against hope" (p. 88). Does Retancourt's attitude toward love make her any happier than Lieutenant Froissy? Or just less unhappy?
- "When women cross the red line, the universe tilts" (p. 99). Why is the idea of a female killer so much more menacing than that of a male?
- Was Danglard wholly malicious in warning Roland and Pierrot against Veyrenc? Or was he sincerely concerned about their safety?
- Would either Adamsberg or Veyrenc make a good partner for Camille and father for Tom? Or are both using Camille as a pawn in their own rivalry?
- Why does Veyrenc offer to help protect Adamsberg given the bitterness Veyrenc feels toward Adamsberg?
- The priest tells Adamsberg "The world of fantasy fills the gaps in people's knowledge" (p. 208). How does his statement apply to this novel? Why do you think Vargas doesn't give him a name and calls him simply "the priest"?
- "Someone who has a secret, a secret so important that this person has sworn by all that's holy not to tell a single soul, always does in fact tell one other person" (p. 249). Is Adamsberg's rule one you've found to bear out in real life? Why does it go against the grain of human nature to keep a secret?
- "All that was left for him to do was return to his own territory, chastened and soiled, encrusted with memories that he would have to destroy" (p. 257). Is Adamsberg sufficiently punished for having spied on Veyrenc?