Thursday, September 12, 2019

Review of The Three Evangelists by Fred Vargas (1995 French; 2006, Vintage)

Opera singer, Sophia Siméonidis, wakes to discover that a tree has been planted in her Paris garden overnight. Her husband has little interest in the event, but she cannot put it out of her mind. She turns to her new neighbours, three down-at-luck historians and a disgraced ex-cop, who have rented the dilapidated house next door. They agree to help, digging up the tree to see if there is anything underneath then placing it back. They find nothing, but a few days later Sophia goes missing just before her niece and her son turn-up. There is no sign of her until a woman is found burned to death in an abandoned car. Already directing the case, the ex-cop starts to orchestrate the murder investigation using the detective assigned to the case and the three historians.

The Three Evangelists is the first of a three book series featuring three historians turned detectives - Marc, Mattias and Lucien (named St Mark, St Matthew and St Luke by Vandoosler, Marc’s godfather – hence the book title). In this outing, they initially investigate the appearance of a tree in the garden of their next door neighbour, opera singer Sophia Siméonidis. They are aided by Vandoosler, an ex-cop who resides with them. The case, however, soon turns into a murder mystery with the discovery of Sophia’s remains. The charm of the book are the three evangelists, each of whom specialises in a different period – prehistoric, middle ages and Great War – and has quite different personalities. They are drawn together by circumstance – they are lacking work and need to share to afford rent. Their haphazard approach to the case is given shape by Vandoosler, who was forced to give up his police career after letting a murderer get away. Vandoosler believes in giving some slack to Sophia’s killer to help smoke them out and to see what they do next. Though it gets results, it’s a dangerous strategy as it places people in harm, and it quickly becomes clear that the killer will murder again to avoid being caught. The plot has the feel of a golden age of crime tale, given its relatively small cast, puzzle like set-up, and its twists as different characters are moved into the frame. Through the four main characters, Vargas keeps the tale lightly humorous and engaging. The only real blip is the reveal which just didn’t sit right; while plausible, the clues for the reader were light and not convincing, and the denouement felt clunky. Nonetheless, an entertaining read.

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