Review: Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand by Fred Vargas

18 February 2008

washblood.jpgFred Vargas has a wonderful imagination. The foundations of her stories are both bizarre and mystical – the search for a possible werewolf in the Alps in Seeking Whom He May Devour and plague marks on doors in Paris in Have Mercy on Us All. The detective called upon to work his way through all of this, and indeed to contribute to the mystery, is Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, from the Paris Serious Crime Squad. Adamsberg is firmly in the tradition of unconventional, gut-based, policemen, often at odds with both their superiors and their staff, and generally full of some internal angst that both informs and limits their capability.

In Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand, Adamsberg is faced with a series of murders that hit him personally and that seem to have been committed by a ghost. The events of the book are triggered by a newspaper report of the death of young woman in Strasbourg, with three stab marks on her abdomen. For fifty years Adamson has been tracking the Trident, a killer who uses a three-pronged tool but also leaves a likely suspect at the scene to take the rap, one of whom was Adamson’s brother, Raphael. The brother was not convicted, but had to leave their village in the Pyrenees and has been out of Adamson’s life for thirty years. The killer is a former judge, of some influence, but he died fourteen years before and in any event would be nearly 100 years old – how could Judge Fulgence have committed the murders?

Anyway, Adamson and his team, including 110 kg Lieutenant Violette Retancourt, travel to Quebec to attend a course on capturing, recording and using DNA, and while they are there Adamson has a liaison with a young Frenchwoman who ends up dead (three stab wounds, of course), and he is the main suspect. Just to confuse things, Camille, Adamson’s former lover is there, now with an infant, which doesn’t help his state of mind. Just when he is about to be arrested, Retancourt and his brother Raphael (who just happens to be living in Detroit), spirit Adamson away (using a technique that only a 110 kg woman who can channel her energy could get away with) and smuggle him back to Paris. Once in Paris, Adamson manages to persuade his boss to give him six weeks in hiding to make his case against the judge’s ghost (or a copy-cat). He stays with an old woman, Clementine (from a previous adventure), who has another old lady staying, who just happens to be a crack computer hacker who can get him any records he likes. This all allows Adamson to work his way through the case, in the process realising that Danglais, his deputy is on the side of the angels. It turns out that mah jong plays a key role in the motives for the murders and in the choice of victims, and in the end Adamson emerges from it all with a better understanding of himself, and his faults, but still unlikely to do much about it.

Fred Vargas is a wonderful observer and user of words, as well as of people’s essential characters – Adamson is a cloud shoveller – and the book is full of small, clever observations that give it colour and life. There is plenty of symbolism that I am sure could lead to hours of fascinating deconstruction if you so wished. The resolution of the fantastic plots does require a heavy dose of helpful coincidence and felicitous events, but who cares. More please.

Wash This Blood Clean From My Hands by Fred Vargas, translated by Sian Reynolds, published by Vintage, paperback 2008 (original 2004). ISBN: 9780099488965

Other books by Fred Vargas – The Three Evangelists (1995, translation 2006), Seeking Whom He May Devour (1999, translation 2004), Have Mercy on Us All (2001, translation 2003), This Night’s Foul Work (2006, translation 2008)

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Review: The Overlook by Michael Connelly

13 February 2008

theoverlook.jpgHarry Bosch has been around a long time now, but doesn’t seem to change much. In The Black Echo (1992) when Michael Connelly first introduced him to us, we learned that Harry (Hieronymous) Bosch had been a Vietnam tunnel rat, that his prostitute mother was murdered and he had been institutionalised for most of his childhood, and that he has a lot of trouble with bullies, senior management and the FBI (although he does get close to several female agents). In other words, a typical man who goes down the mean streets but is not himself mean and operates by his own strict code.

In The Black Echo Harry is described like this:

Harry was not a big man. he stood a few inches short of six feet and was built lean. The newspapers, when they described him, called him wiry. Beneath the jumpsuit his muscles were like nylon cords, strength concealed by economy of size. The gray that flecked his hair was more partial to the left side. His eyes were brown-black and seldom betrayed emotion or intention.

By the time of The Overlook (2007), Harry looks at himself in the mirror and sees:

At 56 years old he was trim and fit and could even stand to add a few pounds while other detectives his age were getting round in the middle…The gray had not yet chased all of the brown out of his hair but it was getting close to victory. His dark eyes, though, were clear and bright and ready for the challenge awaiting him at the overlook.

In most of the eleven books in between, Harry doesn’t stray far geographically or morally, or in terms of behaviour. He has a number of partners, he gets offside with the brass and seems to be pulled off cases, suspended, fired, brought back, shot, and generally makes a nuisance of himself. But throughout the books, great plots and good writing use Harry’s attention to detail and ability to link information to bring us a one of the great crime series. Mind you, I don’t think I’d want to read too many of these books in one sitting – might get seriously affected by deja vu, since they do tend to follow a pattern.

In The Overlook, Harry Bosch is called out to a murder victim found at an overlook off Mulholland Drive. It turns out that the victim had access to lethal chemicals, which naturally brings in the Department of Homeland Security and their obsession with potential terrorism – if put in the water supply the chemical could do serious damage to Los Angeles. Among the Feds on the case is Rachel Walling, an old squeeze of Harry’s. Anyway, after the usual red herrings and wrong turnings Harry works out what really went down, pursues killer, gets shot, killer’s got, case closed.

The book ends with Harry musing:

But, Bosch thought, it didn’t really matter if you died cornered in a butcher shop or on an overlook glimpsing the lights of heaven. You were gone, and the finale wasn’t the part that mattered. We are all circling the drain, he thought. Some are closer to the black hole than others; some will see it coming, and some will have no clue when the undertow grabs them and pulls them down into darkness forever. The important thing is to fight it, Bosch told himself. Always keep kicking. Always keep fighting the undertow.

Well, long may Harry fight the undertow, and the killers, and the brass, and the Feds.

The Overlook by Michael Connelly; Orion paperback 2008; ISBN 13: 9780752882734; Wikipedia entry for Michael Connelly

Other books by Michael Connelly:

Harry Bosch –The Black Echo (1992), The Black Ice (1993), The Concrete Blonde (1994), The Last Coyote (1995), Trunk Music (1997), Angels Flight (1999), A Darkness More Than Night (2001), City Of Bones (2002), Lost Light (2003), The Narrows (2004), The Closers (2005), Echo Park (2006), Suitcase City (2008)

Other novels – The Poet (1996), Blood Work (1998), Void Moon (2000), Chasing the Dime (2002), The Lincoln Lawyer (2005)