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.