French novelist Fred Vargas writes two separate crime series which have been translated into English. The Commissaire Adamsberg investigations are more conventional, although even they exist on the outer fringes of idiosyncrasy. The Accordionist belongs to her other ‘Three Evangelists’ series, and it veers from quaintly quirky into absolute obscurity without following a straight line at any time. It’s the literary equivalent of trying to hold a conversation with a cat. The direction of travel is uncertain and your companion may be a genius. Or not.
Which shouldn’t suggest any absence of creative flair from The Accordionist, far from it. The plot is cunning and craftily constructed. It revolves around a seemingly charming new character – the accordion player of the title, a somewhat simple young man. He’s the obvious suspect when two young women are horribly murdered, not least because he was seen stalking them. But is he a convenient fall-guy or actually someone rather more sinister with dark secrets in his obscure past?
The story plays out as Louis, previously a man from the Ministry of the Interior and now an amateur, cold-case detective, ropes in the eccentric trio of Marc, Mathias and Lucien to hide the fugitive simpleton while Louis determines his innocence or possible criminal involvement. This is where the narrative deviates in every direction with the Evangelists themselves adding little more than confusion. The three men (four, actually, as they’ve been joined by an uncle) aren’t especially well defined as distinct individuals in this story. There’s more than enough meat in the central story to engage the reader, while most of the characters from The Accordionist’s past are themselves surely strange. The actual Evangelists were, for me, simply surplus to requirements, although I appreciate that other folk will enjoy the entertaining interludes in their quirky commune.
The Evangelists novels were written a long time before Vargas moved onto the Adamsberg stories; they’re now 20 years old, and I prefer the author’s more recent crime fiction. While she still writes wonderfully weird fiction, frequently at right-angles to reality, her recent books are rather more focused and streamlined.
There’s a great story in The Accordionist and some truly memorable characters. Vargas’ writing is never less than evocative and original. Even so, much of the effect was obscured by all the detours and deviations.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Accordionist by Fred Vargas is available in all popular formats