I have to admit that the cover did not inspire me to read this one and in fact I would not have opened it if I hadn't heard good things about it over time, and if I hadn't set myself a small goal of tackling some of my shelf-sitters. The title is actually a tribute to the French poet Racine, who figures prominently in the book, due to one character's intimate familiarity with his style. The French title is actually quite different--Dans les bois éternels , which translates to something more along the lines of "In the eternal woods". I don't know if that would have drawn me in any faster, but at least it would be unlikely to have the picture of a dead stag on the cover.
Anyway, neither the author's name, nor the title, nor yet the cover image clued me in to the fact that this novel is in fact a Parisian police procedural, and a very delightful one at that. Vargas' detective squad is the closest I have come to the classic Amsterdam based Grijpstra and de Gier series of Janwillem van de Wetering. Led by the Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, a right-brained dreamer if ever there was one, the Paris Crime Squad holds as many idiosyncratic characters as anyone could ask for. This book comes fairly late in the series, but Vargas does a good job at delineating the characters again for new readers like me.
I fear that certain kinds of readers will throw up their hands at many of the more absurd situations and improbable plot twists in this one. But for readers who are willing to surrender and enjoy the ride there are many rewards. It's extremely well plotted and woven together, and the twists and turns of the central mystery, as well as a secondary one involving Adamsberg's past kept me guessing.
One of the great pleasures of Vargas' work is the way she describes all the detectives--with the exception perhaps of the formidable Retancourt, a woman of many talents--as flawed and somewhat hapless in their own lives, but how in collaboration their strengths come to the fore.
I do have a small problem with the translation, which is that whenever the story ventures into the realm of dialect, the translator's efforts to find some substitute in English slang fall flat. It's a shame, because her rendering of the speech of Adamsberg and the detective squad is subtlety itself.
I found that at the end of reading this one, and despite many other goals, I wanted to nothing so much as begin reading another. And so I have...