Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 304 pages; 2007. Translated from the French by Sian Reynolds.
In my time I’ve read a fair share of crime novels, but this is the first in which the sleuths are a trio of 30-something historians — the three evangelists of the title — guided by a retired policeman who all live together in a ramshackle house in Paris known as “the disgrace”.
It’s an unusual premise for a detective story, but given that Fred Vargas, a pseudonym of Frédérique Audouin-Rouzeau, is actually a French historian and archaeologist it probably shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise.
In this superbly plotted book, which netted Vargas the Duncan Lawrie International Dagger in 2006, medievalist Marc Vandoosler, Great War historian Lucien Devernois and prehistory specialist Matthias Delamarre join forces to solve the mysterious disappearance of their neighbour, opera singer Sophia Siméonidis.
The book begins with Madame Siméonidis asking the trio to investigate the sudden appearance of a beech tree in her garden. She has no idea who planted it, nor why, and her husband seems quite indifferent to its unexplained arrival.
When the three evangelists dig it up, they find no clues to suggest it has been planted with any sinister intent. But when Madame Siméonidis disappears and her body is found in a burned out car a few days later, they launch a full-scale investigation, aided by Marc’s godfather Vandoosler, a former policeman who still has connections within the force.
What ensues is a well thought out analysis in which everyone from Madame Siméonidis’s husband to her occasionally surly niece falls under suspicion…
The Three Evangelists is an unsual crime novel, peppered as it is with eccentric, some might say lovable, characters. But for the book to work as a whole the reader has to suspend belief just a little. I found it difficult enough accepting that the investigators were a weird ensemble of history geeks, but I then had to curtail my rising sense of anger as they blundered around in police matters without maintaining any sense of objectivity or care for the integrity of evidence.
It might be fiction, but this book does, at times, tread a fine line between farce. Vargas also tends to labour the point that these characters are historians, so there are continual jokes and puns about their respective specialisations. (The Great War historian, for instance, dubs Madame Siméonidis’s house “the Western Front”, and he cracks plenty of one-liners about soldiers and trenches, which wear thin very quickly.) Some of these are witty, but most, in my opinion, are cringe-worthy.
Despite these “glitches”, I found the story an enjoyable one when I let myself not get bogged down in the unreality of it. There are certainly plenty of unexpected twists and the odd red herring, so I really had no idea who had committed the crime until the very end. For that reason, it was a satisfying read, but whether I found it satisfying enough to read another Fred Vargas book remains to be seen… I didn’t find this one wholly convincing, Duncan award winner or not.