Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand by Fred Vargas (Shane's book 19, 2008)

I’m wary of serial killer novels, that subgenre of the detective story that is filled with devious super villains and is all too keen to fetishise violence. While real life serial murderers remain, thankfully, rare enough to shock, their fictional counterparts operate in a crowded market. To paraphrase Bill Hicks, simply killing people isn’t enough to get you noticed anymore - you have to do something interesting with the heads. I think he suggests making a Newton’s Cradle. In Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand the killer is a former judge who kills with a trident and has been dead for twenty years. I think we can agree that’s a fairly interesting schtick.

He’s also careful to frame someone for each murder, leading police to believe that they are separate cases. Commissaire Adamsberg isn’t fooled, however. His brother was the main suspect in one of the killings when they were children and Adamsberg provided his brother with a false alibi. His brother, doubting his own innocence, fled the country.

It was Adamsberg’s desire for revenge on the real killer, Judge Fulgence, that motivated him to join the police. He gives up his quest when Fulgence dies.

All of this happens before the novel opens. We begin with Adamsberg preparing to take his team to Quebec to learn the advanced DNA profiling techniques of their Canadian colleagues. Shortly before departure Adamsberg is stunned to discover what appears to be another killing by Fulgence and when a woman is killed with a trident in Quebec, the Commissaire himself falls under suspicion.

Wash This Blood... is the fifth novel Fred Vargas has written about the Paris-based detective and his team. Not all of the series have been translated but it hardly matters. I haven’t read any of the others but this one stands up well on its own.

The plot is a little ridiculous, to say the least, but Vargas writes in a quirky, faintly surreal style that suits the bizarre premise. This is an unusual book but, though mildly diverting, it’s far from essential.