Review: Dog Will Have His Day

9781846558191-1-edition.default.original-1In Dog Will Have His Day, set in France in 1995, Fred Vargas has produced a deliciously off-beat novel that delivers on suspense while also being a pleasure to read.

Much about Dog Will Have His Day is slightly off-centre, including our first glimpse of the central character, Louis/Ludwig Kehlweiler, through the eyes of the ageing Marthe, once “the most beautiful taxi girl on the Left Bank”, in a late-night cafe.

Details of Kehlweiler’s backstory are scattered tantalisingly throughout the novel. We learn early on that he is an ex-cop who spent twenty-five years in bomb disposal, his knee shot to pieces in a showdown with the mob in a hotel in Antibes. Or perhaps in a fire. The story is as slippery as the shuffling array of ancestors Kehlweiler lays claim to in order to suit his purposes. His actual origins are shady, born in 1945 to a French mother and a German father, a “child of World War II” whose origins no one is willing to probe.

As if that is not enough, Kehlweiler has a pet toad, Bufo, who seems to serve him as a device for gauging character: if not a case of ‘love me, love my toad’, then at least ‘respect my toad and I’ll respect you’.

Although Kehlweiler has left the police force, he continues to monitor and investigate crimes, aided by an army of informants and, in Paris, a network of public benches that serve as observation posts. It is from bench number 102 that he spies a human bone fragment, excreted by a dog on the grill around a tree.

In an effort to identify the responsible dog, Kehlweiler seeks the help of his administrative assistant, Marc Vandoosler — aka St Mark — a student of medieval history, who in turn recruits Mathias — aka St Matthew — who Marc describes as “a hunter-gatherer housemate from the palaeolithic period.” (Although he doesn’t feature in this novel, there’s mention of a third housemate, Lucien — aka St Luke — a historian who specialises in the Great War).

Following the dog’s trail leads the three men — Louis, Marc and Mathias — to the far end of Brittany and small fishing village of Port-Nicolas, where the secrets of the past collide spectacularly with the crimes of the present.

Remarkably, given the eccentric array of main characters — not to mention some pretty quirky minor players in Port-Nicolas — Dog Will Have His Day manages to avoid being at all twee.

The plot unfolds like a puzzle box with sliding panels and unexpected twists, especially when it emerges that Kehlweiler’s agendas range further than ‘simply’ solving the mystery of the human bone fragment excreted by the dog in Paris.

Fred Vargas is the pseudonym of French historian, archeologist and writer Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau, well known for her Commissaire Adamsberg police procedurals. Dog Will Have His Day is the second in her Three Evangelists series, a translation of the French original published in 1996 as Un peu plus loin sur la droite.

Vargas and her translator Siân Reynolds have won the CWA International Dagger an impressive four times since the prize was inaugurated in 2006, including for the series debut, The Three Evangelists (2006). If Dog Will Have His Day is anything to go by, it’s easy to see why.

Entertaining and engaging, Dog Will Have His Day satisfies as a standalone novel, though you may find yourself, like me, seeking out more of Fred Vargas’s work after reading it. Published by Harvill Secker, London, 2014.

Listen to my review of Dog Will Have His Day on Radio National Books and Arts Daily here.

 

 

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About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne-based crime writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar won the 2004 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. She is a winner of the Scarlet Stiletto Award and has thrice been shortlisted for Ned Kelly awards. Her third novel, The Dying Beach, was also shortlisted for the 2014 Davitt Award. Angela teaches writing and is currently studying for her PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University.
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7 Responses to Review: Dog Will Have His Day

  1. Angela – I’m glad you enjoyed this. And I do hope you’ll give the Adamsberg series a try. It’s honestly not one of those ‘neutral’ series. People seem to either adore it…or not. But it’s distinctive and I’ll be very interested to see what you think if you do get to it.

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    • angelasavage says:

      I can imagine how Vargas’s style might polarise people, Margot. Strange how ad hoc the translation schedule appears to be, too, with books in the Adamsberg series translated out of chronological order. Still, I am curious to read more Vargas — probably when I get some time out from study.

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  2. suzigun says:

    Sounds like an interesting book. I really must get something by Vargas on to my TBR pile.

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  3. kathy d. says:

    I really hope that you are able to dig into Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg books. Her writing is one of the great joys of reading crime fiction.
    I started out reading “The Three Evangelists,” and moved on to the investigations of Adamsberg and his eccentric team. There is absolutely nothing like them in the crime fiction world. No one writes more imaginative and quirky books than the French genius, known to us as Fred Vargas.
    There is nothing formulaic here, but there are surprises galore: Medieval poems, rural myths and folklore, a lieutenant who speaks in 12-syllable Alexandrine verse, a disabled pigeon, the Bubonic plague, and more. And one of the funniest scenes set in a lavatory that one will ever read that’s pure genius.
    I can see why Vargas’ books are controversial, but I wish that readers who have certain expectations of mysteries would expand their thinking and embrace these books — although I do know there is individual taste. But, please, people, enjoy the genius of Vargas and her characters. There is nothing to lose, and a lot to gain.

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    • angelasavage says:

      Thanks for this comment, Kathy. I will definitely add more of Vargas’ novels to my holiday reading pile. I can see how her work might polarise readers, but I for one enjoyed the totally off-beat characters and story.

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