Sunday, July 3, 2011

Fred Vargas "Wash This Blood Clean from My Hand"

Taking a glance along the bookshelves there are a number of series represented in (almost) their entirety, and in most cases they're, predictably, based around a central character who, in most cases, has some significant degree of eccentricity.

It's easy enough to base a series around a character who's basically a decent bloke (in most cases the key character's male, with Alafair Burke's books the significant exception to the rule) but that means he needs something to add an element of interest and continuity through the series. Peter Robinson's D.I. Banks, for example, has his music while Stephen Booth's Ben Cooper has his family and the on-going prickly interaction with DS Diane Fry, who has her own issues to deal with.

But then you have the central characters who have their, shall we say, eccentricities. James Lee Burke's Dave Robichaux and Burke's other key characters have their interactions between alcohol and their pasts, all of which have elements that are going to drive them. George Pelecanos has an ongoing and intersecting circle of Washington-based sociopaths, most of them with an interest in music and a background of substance issues if not actual abuse.

Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen has his quirks as far as diet and other matters are concerned as he tries to manoeuvre himself into a comfortable sinecure, something that he never quite manages to achieve.
There are a few of them that are pretty much out there. Kinky Friedman and the Greenwich Village Irregulars, Andrea Camilleri's Montalbano and his merry men and Colin Cotterill's Dr Siri and his social circle being prime examples, but when it comes to characters that are way out there where the buses don't run there aren't too many that are further out there than Fred Vargas' Superintendent Jean Baptiste Adamsberg.

Adamsberg's the leader of a ragtag twenty-seven strong assembly of oddballs, including the alcoholic single father and walking encyclopedia Danglard, the formidably substantial Violette Retancourt and a variety of other individuals who all seem to have some degree of obsessive compulsive disorder with walk on roles for his on and off girlfriend, plumber and musician Camille, mother of his son and recurring source of strange situations.

Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand is the fifth in the Adamsberg series, following on not long after This Night's Foul Work. After a few weeks off work, a new home which may or may not be haunted by a ghost who may or may not only have it in for women there are a couple of new players as Adamsberg engages in the demarcation dispute with the drug squad that's the starting point of another highly coincidental plot line.

He needs an ally to keep the investigation into the possibly drug-related deaths of two large men within his own Serious Crime Squad bailiwick, and the most obvious ally is leading pathologist Ariane Lagarde. There's a back story to their interaction here, involving a clash of opinions over a previous case Ariane had categorized as suicide which Adamsberg, correctly as it turned out, saw as murder.

There's also a back story to the newest member of Adamsberg's team "The New Recruit"  whose home in the Pyrenees is the village next door to Adamsberg's. Eight-year-old Veyrenc was attacked by a gang of four toughs from that village while a fifth boy looked on, and it's soon obvious that the on-looker was Adamsberg.

THe attack left Veyrenc with physical as well as mental scars, and his family background has delivered an extraordinary ability to speak in alexandrines, rhyming lines of twelve syllables that were a staple of Baroque German literature, modern French poetry and English drama before Marlowe and Shakespeare. In another series this would be remarkable, here it's an almost regulation personal quirk.

There's no obvious link between the are they or are they not drug related deaths under investigation and shootings of stags in Normandy, and Adamsberg only encounters those incidents because he's called to babysit young Tom while Camille plays cello in an orchestral concert. The Norman villagers outraged at these seemingly senseless acts have their own foibles, as you'd expect, and Adamsberg's drawn into investigating aspects of those killings which, as readers familiar with the quirks of Vargas' plot lines would have come to expect, turn out to be related to this other case.

The most likely suspect seems to be a recently-escaped elderly district nurse, jailed for more than thirty killings of old people and possibly out for revenge on Adamsberg, who, predictably, cracked  the case and his associated. There's also the possibility that she's gathering the ingredients for a potion that will deliver eternal life, and the deaths that kicked the story off would seem to be part of that. There are a number of seemingly accidental deaths of Norman virgins whose graves have subsequently been disturbed, more than likely by the two men whose bodies Adamsberg wants to keep out of the clutches of the drug squad, as part of the process of gathering those ingredients.

That quest for the eternal elixir might also explain the mysterious disappearance of Violette Retancourt, a matter that is resolved when her unconscious body is located by Snowball the tracker cat.

It would be quite possible to go further into the intricacies and interlinkings as Adamsberg goes about another instinctive investigation, but out of consideration for the reader, I'm inclined to draw a veil over those matters, pausing only, on the way out, to point out that Wash This Blood Clean from My Hand is another worthy addition to a series that will eventually find its way, complete, onto Hughesy's bookshelves. Between public libraries in Bowen and southport and book shop purchases I've read the remainder of the series, and as we keep our eyes peeled for the forthcoming An Uncertain Place and subsequent volumes there's definitely a place for rereading their precedents, which means they need to find their way onto the shelves, don't they?

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