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)

Film Review: La Vie en Rose

14 October 2007

Edith PiafLa Vie en Rose (La Môme) is the story of Edith Piaf as told by director Olivier Dahan, and lead Marion Cotillard. This is certainly Piaf behind the scenes, chronicling a childhood of being constantly separated from the people and places she gets to know, to a life as a street singer, before being discovered and making the big time. In the end, living her life for the moment catches up with her, and the moment is passed at only 47.

In a way this could be just another drugs, sex and rock and roll movie, albeit with some nice period touches – Paris, New York and California in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. But what makes it different is its quality, whether it is the acting, the writing, or their realisation on the screen.

Marion Cotillard brings us Edith as an impatient, troubled woman, who looks to St Therese de Lisieux to help her through life, with support from lots of alcohol and drugs. Edith’s first rescuer, nightclub owner Louis Leplée (Gérard Depardieu) is murdered and she is suspected of complicity but is acquitted. However, this was a setback to her career until she came under the wing of Raymond Asso, and the rest is history.

After the war, Edith Piaf toured the USA, where she met the love of her life, the married boxer Marcel Cerdan. The importance of this relationship to her is illustrated through a fantasy scene when she learns of his death in a plane crash. After that, it seems to have gone downhill on the relationship side, even if the career was taking off big time. In the end the drugs and rehab, the booze, and the car crashes, all took their toll on the body, including the liver, and the end is inevitable.

The movie flashes around Edith’s life, beginning with a collapse on stage, going back to her childhood, and then working its way backwards and forwards to the end. The effect is successful. It illustrates and emphasizes the nature of her life and the relationships in it, including that with her half-sister, Simone. Although names are dropped, e.g Cocteau has her in a play, and we see Marlene Dietrich drop by at New York club, most of the action is with Edith’s circle.

Marion Cotillard becomes Edith Piaf, and while the big-eyed look is perhaps overdone, her performance is extraordinary, and she carries the movie with her. She uses the whole of her body – the damaged walk of later years, the arm gestures, and the joyfully bad manners – to give us the character. In the end, this is a very good movie, because it explains something to us about a life that has become a legend and a symbol.

For more details go to the IMDB site for this movie. To see a great review, and links to YouTube videos of Edith Piaf, go to Roger Ebert.