Wednesday, July 25, 2007

What makes a killer kill? (Fred Vargas, "Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand")

What drives a person to kill? The vast (I hope) majority of crime-fiction writers have never killed a person, and they ignore the question. Fred Vargas confronts it head on.

In Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand, the protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, comes to believe he may be guilty of murder. He shares his doubts with a faithful colleague who, naturally, believes in him but, unlike most faithful colleagues, gives an explanation that goes beyond mere sentimentality and blind faith.

And you haven't any doubts?" [Adamsberg] asked.


"Why not? You don't like me, and there's a mountain of evidence stacked up against me. But you don't think I did it?"

"No. You're not the sort of man who would kill someone."

"How do you know?"

Retancourt pursed her lips slightly, seeming to hesitate.

"Well, let's just say that it wouldn't interest you enough."
Later, the colleague offers a fuller explanation to the abstracted, intuitive, brilliantly successful Adamsberg:

"I admired your flair of course, everyone did, but not the air of detachment it seemed to give you, the way you disregarded anything your deputies said, since you only half-listened to them anyway. I didn't like your isolation, your high-handed indifference. ... you ought to listen when I say you didn't murder anyone. To kill, you need to be emotionally involved with other people, you need to get drawn into their troubles and even be obsessed by what they represent. Killing means interfering with some kind of bond, an excessive reaction, a sort of mingling with someone else. So that the other person doesn't exist as themselves, but as something that belongs to you, that you can treat as a victim. I don't think you're remotely capable of that."

How that works as psychology, I don't much know or care, and neither does Vargas. Hers is no psychological crime novel. If anything, it's a philosophical one and is the better for that. I mean, haven't we all had enough narration from the point of view of the psychopath or the man or woman driven to kill by a traumatic childhood? Isn't it nice to have a bit of analysis by someone other than the killer? Isn't it especially nice when, as in this novel, the killer turns out to be an obsessed sociopath of a particularly extravagant kind, and all we know of him is what he says in his brief appearances and what others think about him?

That's just one way Vargas makes Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand so fresh and such a pleasure to read. Others are a sly wit, a sympathetic and just sentimental enough view of some elderly characters, and some delightful takes on the cultural conflict between French Canadians and French when Adamsberg and his colleagues fly to Quebec for a seminar on DNA profiling. Vargas, a medieval historian and archaeologist, also manages gracefully to work those interests into the story.

There was an outcry two years ago when Britain's Crime Writers’ Association split its main CWA Gold Dagger award into two prizes, one for English-language crime fiction and one for translated crime. One happy result is that the CWA this year was able to honor two superlatively good crime novels: Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand,with the Duncan Lawrie International Dagger, and Peter Temple's The Broken Shore, with the Duncan Lawrie Dagger.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

The man he cites, suggests, remains a suggestion.

What of the future?

Realism above all. In all futures.

July 26, 2007  
Blogger Dave Knadler said...

Not sure what the above comment is supposed to mean, but I agree with your point about narration from the point of view of the demented killer. I just find it tiresome. It almost put me off "He Who Fears the Wolf" until I realized where the author was going.

I'm one of those readers who doesn't want my villains humanized to a sympathetic degree; I want them objectively evil. In crime fiction, that's a big part of what drives the story.

July 26, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's no coincidence that He Who Fears the Wolf and Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand are two of the highlights of my crime-fiction-reading year. They make sly reference to the usual story-from-the-psycho's-point-of-view by avoiding it.

Ken Bruen's Calibre, about which I posted a while back, has chapters with such a point of view, but they work because Bruen is so funny. I posted some excerpts here: Perhaps it's no coincidence that the novel heads one of its chapters with an epigram from He Who Fears the Wolf.

You have an interesting take on the morality of that point of view. Some of the Swedish writers I've read, Håkan Nesser and Kjell Eriksson in particular, have sympathy for villains and other lowlifes, but that works for me, in part because the villains are not generally purely evil or psychotic.

My moral take on the demented-killer point of view is mere speculation, since I haven't read many such stories. I wonder, though, if that point of view may be responsible for the increase in graphic and brutal violence in noir novels that some readers have noted. You know, as the device grows stale, authors have to come up with gorier and more spectacular ways of spicing it up.

July 26, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

She has a totally different style, a unique voice and is quite quirky. Pleased to hear you loved it too.
The secondary characters and the relationships in the team worked for me too. They seemed quite realistic, with normal personal insecurities brought into the work place.
I've not read many books in translation at all. I tried another this year and failed to pass page 60. (A combo of sub-optimal translation and the author's lack of research to get the detail right.) The comparison leads me to believe that Sian Reynolds's translation is a very fine piece of work.

July 28, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sian Reynolds has an interesting short afterword in my edition of Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand. She mentions one element that she chose to eliminate from her translation: the occasional misunderstandings between the French Quebecois and the French from France of certain words and phrases. Such misunderstandings would obviously be exceedingly difficult to render into another language, so Reynolds wisely decided not to try. I think she worked hard to produce a readable translation.

July 28, 2007  

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