- - Friday, January 27, 2012

By Fred Vargas
Penguin, $15 416 pages

By Ian Rankin
Reagan Arthur Books, $25.99, 400 pages

There is the matter of a man who ate his way through a wardrobe and another who chewed through a small airplane. And there is the alarming question of feet cut off at the ankle, wearing shoes and trying to hobble into an ancient cemetery.

And, of course, there is the legend of the vampire haunting the cemetery, according to the gospel of Bram Stoker, the creator of Dracula. These bizarre facts are presented in elegant prose embellished by the macabre humor of Fred Vargas, who has really let herself go in “An Uncertain Place,” her latest wild literary concoction. It is of course the responsibility of her long-suffering Commissaire Adamsberg to resolve such problems and help in the birth of a kitten in his spare moments.

This author may be one of a kind. A historian and archaeologist when she is not writing about murder, she uses her background knowledge to support the theory that strange things can happen and then produces the monsters who make them happen.

Like the killer who chopped up his victim so conscientiously that pieces of him had to be scooped up from all over his living room. This is classic Vargas, writing cheerfully and gracefully on gory topics. Her remarkable Commissaire Adamsberg, an ostensibly sleepy little man, trudges along the path of the killer and remains remarkably philosophical, despite discovering he has a murderous son previously unknown to him.

This is a fascinating jumble of a mystery with corpses and clues all over the place as Adamsberg wends his own quiet way between Paris and London, keeping in mind that he speaks not a word of English, The author makes the most of her talent for the blackest of humor and quirky development in a plot that she must have enjoyed putting together. All the reader can do is keep pace with it because it isn’t easy to understand.

The introduction of a foul-mouthed and vicious young man claiming that Adamsberg is his father adds to the complexity of the situation, especially since the commissaire apparently is catnip for the ladies. Yet not even the possibility of a gruesome death by freezing can distract Adamsberg from the path of law enforcement.

For those who relish Ms. Vargas, this is imaginative and entertaining reading. Those who are not Vargas fans most likely will shy away from the strangeness of its plot. Not even Adamsberg can make amputated feet funny.

n n n

John Rebus may be gone, but readers should not mourn the lugubrious, hard-drinking Scottish detective. Malcolm Fox is a worthy successor as demonstrated in “The Impossible Dead,” the second of a new series by Ian Rankin who is living up to his reputation for characters of subtlety and originality. The concept of the police investigating their own is not only complicated but difficult for those given that assignment.

Fox is a more introspective and complicated man than Rebus, which fits him for his role. He is unhappy about his unpopularity among his law enforcement peers because he is now a member of the group called “The Complaints” known rather contemptuously by their critics as the Rubber Heels. Their work is important and necessary, but defining morality is often an amorphous business, and there is always the possibility that the offense is less heinous than it has been portrayed.

In this case, Fox and his small group of colleagues find themselves confronting a situation that is worse than is originally suspected. The suspicions of corruption proliferate into evidence of murder that dates back to a tumultuous era in police history. Fox almost loses his own life as he explores the darkest corridors of political power. And domestically he is struggling to deal with an aged and sick father and a bitter and neurotic sister who has no understanding of her brother’s work or his problems.

Fox is the key to these mysteries in a way that Rebus never was. Where Rebus was tough but afflicted by self-pity, Fox displays a quiet strength and control.

Unlike Rebus, he has given up alcohol, but he doesn’t pretend he doesn’t miss it. And his uneasiness about his current line of work is underscored by his willingness to cross dangerous lines in order to reassure himself that his principles have not been compromised. Where Rebus was inclined to plunge in, Fox waits and coolly assesses the situation, and is all the more effective for so doing. Mr. Rankin is to be congratulated on his latest invention.

• Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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