Vintage Books: London
It is always gratifying to discover a new author—new at least to the reader—and interesting in the serendipity of that discovery. I came upon a reference to author Fred Vargas in a recent issue of “Current World Archaeology,” a British publication; my interest and curiosity was piqued and I promptly sent off for one of the novels noted in the article, penned by archaeologist Chris Catling– and was not disappointed.
Fred Vargas is a best-selling novelist in her native France—yes, her, for Fred Vargas is the pseudonym for archaeologist Frederique Audouin-Rouzeau. She is a researcher at the Institut Pasteur, where she studies the archaeology of the plagues that ravaged Europe during the Middle Ages.
The Three Evangelists is a clever and captivating little mystery set in the 13th arrondissement of Paris. It concerns first of all the mysterious over-night appearance of a beech tree in the yard of the just-past-her-prime opera diva Sophia Simeonidis and her abysmally clueless husband Pierre Relivaux, a petty government bureaucrat.
Sophia prevails upon her new neighbors, three young men, to excavate the area around the mystery tree, in hopes of determining its origin. Their digging yields no information whatsoever, but when, a few weeks later, Sophia mysteriously disappears, leaving no word regarding her whereabouts with husband Pierre, her good friend and neighbor Juliette Gosselin, or anyone else apparently.
The three young men who had come to Sophia’s aid so recently believe that there is just cause to suspect foul play. They are Mathias Delamarre, an archaeologist; Marc Vandoosler, a medievalist; and Lucien Devernois, an historian of the Great War (World War I). Not only do the three share an interest—some might say an obsession—with history, but they are nearly penniless and struggle daily to eke out a living from their academic pursuits. Together the three—along with Marc’s godfather, Armand Vandoosler, a Paris cop, or flic, recently cashiered for suspected corruption—had taken up residence in a dilapidated old disaster of a house in rue Chasle, next to Sophia’s home.
When Sophia’s body is found in the purposely burned out wreck of an automobile, the three idiosyncratic roommates plus Armand turn their full attention to solving the mystery, the answer to which may very well lie in Sophia’s operatic past. The twists and turns of the murder plot are a delight to the reader, but even more so is the character study of the three protagonists—Mathias, Marc, and Lucien—Matthew, Mark and Luke, the three Evangelists of the title. They are by turns brilliant, quirky and absurd. While archaeology does not play directly into the plot, each of the three Evangelists does use his specialized knowledge to eventually ferret out the villain and to explain the convoluted history of the crimes—yes, crimes—for Sophia may not be the only victim of this diabolical killer! And yes, the beech tree that appeared at the novel’s very beginning does return in the denouement in a significant way, even though earlier excavations by Mathias, Marc and Lucien, and later by the police, seemed to yield no relevant clues toward unraveling the mystery of Sophia’s disappearance and death.
Three trowels for this delightful and often cleverly hilarious mystery.