Fred 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)