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l'homme à l'envers

9 june 2019

I wasn't charitable about Fred Vargas' L'homme aux cercles bleus a few years ago – but the novel annoyed me, it was preposterous and long-winded. Vargas' second Commissaire Adamsberg novel, L'homme à l'envers, is about werewolves, so it didn't hold out a whole lot of promise going in.

But I'm traveling to France this summer, and I wanted to read some French, so I picked up this werewolf polar and turned out to be very glad I did. Yes, it's an offbeat book about an offbeat cop, and it's not entirely plausible; but on the suspension-of-disbelief front (something I'd complained about in Cercles bleus), Vargas' second Adamsberg novel holds up very well.

Vargas spins her lycanthropic tale from two intriguing points of view that eventually converge. In the southeast of France, a plumber/composer named Camille listens to her Canadian boyfriend, an ethological researcher, tell tales of the wolves he studies. Things are getting hairy out in the hills, though, because the wolves – recent wanderers-in from Italy, people suppose, they can't be nice French wolves – have started to tear apart ewes from the local flocks.

Meanwhile, in Paris, Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg follows the wolf story on TV with great interest. His interest increases when a Paris gangster-girl named Sabrina starts to stalk him with the intention of putting a bullet in his belly. Mightn't it be time for a vacation in the Alpes-Maritimes? That would allow the commissaire to avoid assassination while investigating the wolf-killings.

And then the wolf kills not just a ewe, but a human female, one of Camille's best friends. The consensus among the local shepherds is that they're dealing not with a canine wolf, but with a loup-garou. People have a pretty good idea who: a local character who seems to have no hairs on his body. Because of course, werewolves don't. They wear their pelts on the inside, hommes à l'envers, men inside out. They only get hirsute at night.

Camille, the murder victim's adopted Franco-African son Soliman, and an ancient shepherd known only as Le Veilleux, "The Watcher," set out on the track of the werewolf. Canadian Boyfriend follows on his motorbike. Their pursuit is a veritable road-movie – a good French term. Commissaire Adamsberg eventually joins up with them, pursued by his own avenging angel. A love triangle ensues. The werewolf kills more and more people. This gets weirder and weirder, but more and more suspenseful in the process, and it becomes a genuine page-turner.

Like L'homme aux cercles bleus, L'homme à l'enversis fantastic, and far more interested in spinning a fanciful yarn about love, family, loneliness, and risk-taking than it is in displaying police procedure. But I liked it all the better for getting out of Paris and into an enchanted wilderness, for becoming a "road-movie," for being truly escapist. I will read a third Fred Vargas novel with heightened expectations.

Vargas, Fred. L'homme à l'envers. 1999. Paris: Magnard, 2017.