Dog Will Have His Day by Fred Vargas is a laid-back thriller in search of a body

fred vargasAs clues go, it was certainly different. To the casual observer the greyish white shape on the metal grid close to bench 102 in a Paris park looked exactly like dog excrement. Something to be avoided, perhaps tut-tutted over. Certainly it was not to be viewed as an important, even exciting, find. But Ludwig-Louis Kehlweiler, former special investigator and temporary occupant of bench 102, instantly recognises it for what it is, a bone. A human bone. A big toe to be exact.  Who lost the digit and how it came to be inside (albeit temporarily) a dog in a Paris suburb is the subject of Vargas’s latest book, Dog Will Have Its Day.

Vargas is the pseudonym of Frederique Audoin-Rouzeau, a French historian and archeologist, who has won four CWA International Daggers for her books, notably  involving the dapper Commissaire Adamsberg, head of police in Paris’s 5th arrondissement. Kehlweiler is a completely different kettle of fish. Scruffy, fond of dialectical discussions with his pet toad Bufo, that travels with him in the specially moist pocket of his coat, he walks with a limp, an occupational hazard of taking on the mob, and is given to cunningly confused ramblings.

He enlists the assistance of the Evangelists, a strange, offbeat trio with a range of useful but borderline legal attributes as he enthusiastically sets off on some freelance sleuthing. The  canine culprit is soon identified as Ringo whose owner, a collector of ancient typewriters, lives in the remote Port-Nicolas in Brittany. Finding the owner of the toe is a little more tricky. An outsider in a tight, protective community  things aren’t made any easier for Kehlweiler by the fact his former wife, is now happily ensconced with the local spa owner.

Vargas has said that she writes each book in just a few weeks of intense activity but Dog Has Its Day still has a leisured feel. Whilst there is plenty of action (deaths, shootings, toe-eating dogs) her books are more the pace of Georges Simenon than, say, Kathy Reichs of Jo Nesbo. Yet they are no less intense for that. Kehlweiler’s discovery of links to a decades old Nazi atrocity casts rare light on the complex shadows of his own German heritage. And there are cleverly whimsical inclusions like the enormous, seemingly useless, printing machine that automatically provides answers, if only you know what question to ask.

Dog Will Have His Day by Fred Vargas, translated by Sian Reynolds, is published by Harvill Secker. It is the second of an Evangelists trilogy.

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