Mystery review: Seeking Whom he May Devour by Fred Vargas

Original French title: L’homme à l’envers
Genre: Mystery
Year of publication: 1999
No. in series: 2
Series detective: Commissaire Adamsberg
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Rural France, contemporary

Camille, an old girlfriend of Commissaire Adamsberg’s, is living in the French Alps with a Canadian who is there to observe and make a documentary about the European wolf. In the area, dozens of sheep have been killed by what appears to be a rogue wolf, but when a woman in the neighbourhood is found dead with her throat torn out by the same creature, rumours about a werewolf start circulating.

Camille had been fond of the dead woman and joins her foster-son and her shepherd in a search for the killer, whom they believe to be a man from the neighbourhood who has trained a big dog or a wolf to kill on command. A map found in his house shows a route through rural France he has apparently planned to take, and this they follow, finding the killer always a step ahead of them and the body count, of both sheep and humans, rising.

Then Camille decides to call on Adamsberg for help. He has a good reason to stay away from Paris for a while and joins the trio in their hunt for the killer, conducting first an informal and then an official investigation into the murders.

In the previous Vargas book I reviewed (Have mercy on us all), historical facts about the Plague were woven into a story about a modern Plague scare. In this book, the inspiration is clearly the Beast of Gévaudan, which also inspired the movie Brotherhood of the Wolf. There is not so much history interwoven into this story as in Have mercy on us all, but a little knowledge about the Beast and its history and about wolves and werewolves is helpful.

The characters are well-drawn and interesting and there are some nice twists and turns and a couple of clever red herrings. The reader is on an even footing with Adamsberg and company, and may even have figured things out before Adamsberg apparently has.

It isn’t until Camille decides they need help and calls Adamsberg that the action really takes off. Until then the story unfolds at a leisurely pace that gives the reader time to get to know Camille and her companions and to form some opinions, that may or may not be confirmed when Adamsberg begins his detecting.

The landscape and small villages and hamlets of the French Alps provide a backdrop for the story that has made me want to visit the region.

Rating: A tasty road trip tale of death and mayhem, love and friendship. 3+ stars.

Awards: Prix Mystère de la critique; shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger.


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