Commissaire Adamsberg, the creation of French historian and archaeologist Fred Vargas is one of my favourite detectives, but I had not read the first book that won Vargas and translator Sian Reynolds the International Dagger back in 2006. Perhaps it not being part of the Adamsberg series had put me off, but after reading Disgrace it was one of those strange coincidences that I should pick up a book about people living in a house called “The Disgrace”.
I love the Adamsberg books for their quirkiness and sheer eccentricity so was a little surprised at the formal structure of The Three Evangelists. The novel began with a longish set up introducing the characters, followed by the crime and an investigation. The last few chapters involve various false trails and incorrect solutions, then finally the unmasking of the perpetrator. It is almost like a Golden Age Detective story given the special Vargas treatment.
Greek opera singer Sophia Simeonidas is astonished one morning to see a tree has appeared in her garden. Her husband Pierre knows nothing about it and she asks her new neighbours Marc, Mathias and Lucien, and Marc’s godfather/uncle disgraced former cop Armand Vandoosler for assistance. The neighbours dig under the tree, find nothing and replace the earth. Then a few weeks later Sophia goes missing, and a body is found burned beyond recognition in a car. The body is identified from an artefact Sophia always carries with her, and there are multiple suspects. Her husband Pierre, her newly arrived niece the beautiful Alexandra, her ex-lover, her best friend? All have a motive and the evangelists and Vandoosler begin their own private investigation.
For me the best part of the book is the introductory set up as Marc, a medievalist, who down on his luck can’t afford the rent,and persuades other historians, Mathias whose subject is pre-history, and Lucien who studies the Great War to share the house, with his godfather Armand Vandoosler. The elder Vandoosler takes to calling the younger men St Mark, St Luke and St Matthew and so they become the Three Evangelists. It is the complex burgeoning relationships between these characters, with Sophia’s best friend Juliette, who runs a local restaurant, and Sophia’s niece Alexandra that makes the novel so interesting.
‘Do you have a car?’
‘We don’t have a car, because of our little problem with money.’
The Three Evangelists was originally published as Debout les morts in 1995, and won the 2006 International Dagger ahead of Andrea Camilleri’s Excursion to Tindari and Hakn Nesser’s Borkmann’s Point. It is certainly an easy read with a lot of clever Gallic charm packed into a mere 292 pages and well worth reading.