Wash This Blood Clean from My Hand opens on a frosty October day with Parisian police commissaire Jean-Pierre Adamsberg in the basement of his office building, leaning against the inactive boiler. He is not especially perturbed by the cold; it piques his imagination, giving him “the sensation that he was only one step away from the frozen wastes, that he could walk across them and dig a hole to hunt seals.” But the lack of heat has frozen (yes) the progress of his staff, who need heat to accomplish anything. He’s in the basement to escape their complaints.
In this few hundred words, Fred Vargas sets the scene for a novel that encompasses not only the actions of a serial killer with a trident (why do I envision killing seals with a trident?), but also transplantation of the squad to Canada, where it’s cold. As well, Vargas stitches in some character development, when Adamsberg is taken to task for his remoteness from the human beings who work with him, a situation that’s encapsulated by his hiding out in the basement. Brilliant.
These Vargas novels are so complex, so satisfying, so multi-layered. Adamsberg himself is fascinating, an exasperating unconventional thinker whose weird gifts (like the ability to lull children to sleep with a touch) and calm demeanor add up to a plausible character. Vargas has a particular talent for creating secondary characters like Clementine Courbet, an old Parisian lady who shelters and advises Adamsberg, or her friend Josette, an elderly bourgeoise in sneakers who happens to be an ace computer hacker. I love the way Vargas nods to the supernatural in these novels: here it’s ghosts, but she’s also alluded to werewolves and religious relics. And the writing supports all of this complexity. I noticed in this book constant allusions to temperature. Warmth equates to well-being; at his best moments Adamsberg is toasty and pliant, connected to his fellows. When he is cold and distant, terrible things happen.
In fact it may be Vargas‘ delight in metaphor that I enjoy most. She happily uses a weird Canadian lake, Strasbourg cathedral, dragons, prehistoric fish, the classical pantheon, and Mah-Jong tiles to weave a kind of trailing nimbus of emotion around her mystery. Which, fortunately, is a perfectly efficient one. Once again, Adamsberg is on a trail that seems impassable, involving a string of murders that goes back thirty years and implicates his long-lost brother. Once again, solid procedural work — with a big boost from his hacker friend Josette — untangles the puzzle.
The translation by Sian Reynolds is very good but I do question the choice of English title. Wash This Blood Clean from My Hand is borrowed from Macbeth, a quotation that also alludes to Neptune. It doesn’t align with the French title, Sous les vents de Neptune, and it’s too awkward to be memorable. Which is a pity, because the book is splendid.