The Ghost Riders of Ordebec by Fred Vargas

“A trail of tiny breadcrumbs led from the kitchen into the bedroom, as far as the spotless sheets where the old woman lay dead, her mouth open. Commissaire Adamsberg looked down at the crumbs in silence, pacing slowly to and fro. and wondering what kind of Tom Thumb – or what ogre in this case – might have dropped them there. He was in a small, dark, ground-floor apartment, with just three rooms, in the eighteenth arrondissement, in northern Paris.

“The old woman was lying in the bedroom. Her husband was in the dining room. He showed neither impatience nor emotion as he waited, just looked longingly at his newspaper, folded open at the page with crossword puzzle, which he didn’t dare try to solve while the police were there. He had told them his brie life story. He and his wife had met at work, in an insurance company: she was a secretary, he an accountant. They had married in their careless youth, not knowing it was destined to last fifty-nine years. Then his wife had died in the night. Heart attack, according to the local commissaire, who was ill in bed and had called on Adamsberg to replace him. Just do me a favour, it won’t take more than an hour, a routine morning call.”

“One more time, Adamsberg walked the trail of crumbs. The flat was impeccably kept: the armchairs had antimacassars, the Formica surfaces were gleaming, the windows were spotless and the dishes washed. He went over to the bread bin, which contained part of a baguette, and a large half-loaf, wrapped in a clean towel and hollowed out in the middle. He returned to the husband siting in his armchair, and pulled up another chair alongside.”

The two men talk about the breadcrumbs and Adamsberg tries to get at the explanation for a hollowed out loaf of bread. The husband, Julien Tuilot tells Adamsberg he will claim it was a mercy killing and that he will be back home in a couple of months. He even tells Adamsberg that he is cunning . The Commissaire replies “That’s very true, Monsieur Tuilot.”

If you have read any of the eight previous titles in this series you will know right away that Commissaire Adamsberg is far more cunning than Monsieur Tuilot.

Ghost Riders of OrdebedAnd, although the breadcrumb tale is intriguing the main case in this volume concerns another trail, the Chemin de Bonneval which dates back to before the First Crusade and was ridden by the Furious Army also known as Hellequin’s Horde. The Furious Army rides near Odebec and , when Adamsberg returns to his office he finds waiting outside a woman from Ordebec who has come to report a missing man, Michel Herbier. The woman’s name is Valentine Vendermot and she explains to Adamsberg that she has come to him on the recommendation of her priest. It takes him some time to establish Madame Vendermot’s concern as she makes it very clear that the missing man is of no personal concern to her and that he was, in fact, a horrible person. As it turns out, the woman’s concern is for her daughter who has foreseen the death of the missing man and some other men as well.

Enough said. The historical background about the Furious Army and Hellequin’s Horde, the Ghost Riders of the book’s title, makes for a marvellous sleuthing adventure and one that Adamsberg is especially suited to tackle.

There is another delightful subplot in the story which involves tracking down a petty criminal who has tied together the feet of a pigeon in the park near Adamsberg’s office building and that he brings home to nurse to recovery, a task which his recently discovered son in his twenties takes over with complete dedication. The intention is to use the string tied on the bird’s feet to track the miscreant who abused the bird and others in the park. This subplot is interwoven cleverly through the adventure in Ordebec.

One of Adamsberg’s team, Commandant Danglard, is a history buff and provides background on the Furious Army. He explains that when the army of Ghost Riders rides the Chemin de Bonneval it always carries “along living men men or women, who are heard shreiking and lamenting in suffering and flames. They’re the ones the witness recognizes.” Madame Vendermot’s daughter did just that.

As with all Adamsberg mysteries, there is a stellar cast of characters both in Paris and in Ordebec. Among the latter is a woman he meets on his first walk along the Chemin de Bonneval and who tells him straight off that he took his time getting there from the station. Her sharp wit and forthright speech continue throughout the novel. Her name is Léone (Léo) and Adamsberg ends up staying in her home because there really is no hotel. Léo has a dog named Fleg (short for flegmatic) who eats sugar cubes which will play a role in solving the Ordebec mysteries.

If you have not yet read an Adamsberg book I would highly recommend starting at the beginning which is The Three Evangelists from 2006 unless you are not perturbed about gaps in where things began. I have not read one that I did not enjoy immensely but Adamsberg is unusual and definitely a cerebral character as are some of his investigating officers so if you prefer another type of detective you could be disappointed.

There is a reference in this book to the butterfly effect which is part of chaos theory and I found this particularly interesting as it relates to crimes and mysteries and the solving of same. If you are interested you might want to take a look at Wikipedia here.

Vargas is an historian and archeologist by profession. In her note at the end of this book she writes”Many references to the story of Gauchelin, the priest of Bonneval who encountered Hellequin and his ghostly cavalcade, can be found on the internet. The ancient texts cited in this novel are taken from Claude Lecouteaux,  Fantômes et revenants au Moyen Age, Image editions, Paris, 1986.