Thursday, April 3, 2008
Only half way through the Fred Vargas rompol Wash This Blood Clean From My Hands and I already know who the killer is. There's really only one person it could be. Perhaps at this point I've simply read too many mysteries. As soon as Adamsberg woke up on the path with blood on his hand I knew whose blood it would turn out to be and how that fact would be detected.
Normally this sort of thing would be a deal breaker and the book would go flying across the room. You can't be consistently this far ahead of a fictional detective without losing respect for him. But while Wash This Blood works hardly at all as generic mystery it is nevertheless a quite effective dramatic novel about cops who are also human beings with tangled psyches. (One of the book's defining metaphors is a remote lake with a deep layer of almost prehistoric sucking mud.)
Or rather, it is a melodrama, a genre in its own right, little respected nowadays, that has rules every bit as rigid as those of the detective story. Melodrama can in fact work better when you can see the finale coming (as in this case) 200 pages away. It creates a sense of looming dread and of an overall pleasing symmetry that the Ahab-like cop who has been stalking a "dead" serial killer for two decades is himself an object of obsession---for the last person he, though not we, would ever think of.
The most relevent form of melodrama for our purposes is, of course, film noir, and on the evidence so far I'd say Vargas has more in common with Cornell Woolrich (cf especially The Black Curtain) than with Simenon or Mankell. Which is fine with me. Can't be a Bollywood fan without having a high tolerance for melodrama.
And if I'm wrong I will either mange mon chapeau or remove it and bow deeply to Frederique, the new Queen of Crime.
UPDATE: In the end Vargas succeeded in tricking me, but in a rather anti-climactic fashion: with a very deftly executed feint that seemed to promise a wrenching twist she had no intention of delivering. I had a wonderful time reading the book, and have already added Vargas to my short list, though as a genre technician I would rate her much lower than rompol sifu Reginald Hill, who builds his similarly involving and intricate dramas on rock-solid puzzle-novel frameworks. Weaknesses here include a way-too-elaborate string of deductions based on Mah Jong hands that felt dropped in from some other, much less rumpled and naturalistic sub-genre; and an over-reliance on a computer hacker pulling answers out of the ether. (In a more hard boiled story the source of least resistance would be an astonishingly well-informed CI.)
An obvious follow-up to a crime novel that takes place partly in French Canada is the latest from a Great White Northern master. Beauty, eh?