This Poison Will Remain (A Commissaire Adamsberg Mystery)
“The poison of the crimes, like the spider venom involved, threatens to incapacitate and to kill.”
In her ninth translated Commissaire Adamsberg crime novel, CWA award winner Fred Vargas takes a strand from the #MeToo movement and weaves it into scandals around unprotected children and religious failings, to craft an intense and deep-cutting investigation in This Poison Will Remain.
The book’s title in French was Quand sort la recluse: loosely translated, “when the recluse goes forth.” It’s a better title than This Poison Will Remain, since the heart of the crimes that Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg and his officers investigate involves the double meaning of “recluse.” First, there’s the brown recluse spider, which can give a toxic but not generally deadly bite. So why are victims dying of what appears to be the spider’s venom—multiplied to an amount that at least 22 spiders would have to provide?
Second, a recluse, as Americans know, is also a hermit, a person who deliberately lives separately from society and even friendship. In France, it’s extended to some kinds of religious hermits, as well as a vicious past history of abused women enclosed in terribly deprived huts, reduced to the status of charity-fed animals, in order to hide their shame at having been sexually abused.
Adamsberg finds support in the investigation from a spider-interested older woman who in turn is caregiver for someone who no longer functions outside the home. It seems a kindness. But as he and his team begin to untangle threads that lead back to a gang of childhood bullies at an orphanage in Nîmes, their suspicion of any player from that locality takes them deeper into how personalities can deform, not just with abuse but also with isolation.
Vargas is not as well known in America as some other French crime novelists. It’s a delight to read the smooth translation by the same person who’s worked with her previous crime fiction, Siàn Reynolds. Adamsberg has collected a talented but in some ways crippled set of detectives: a tense commandant ready to challenge the Commissaire’s authority, a narcoleptic research pro, a calm but not yet self-confident female lieutenant. In This Poison Will Remain it’s the concerns of Commandant Danglard, some for himself, some for the group, that nearly capsize the investigation and the team:
“When Adamsberg had come into the room, with his usual slightly rolling gait, smiling round at everyone, shaking hands, Danglard’s anxiety immediately revived. More vague and elusive than ever, with his wandering gaze and absent-minded smile, the commissaire seemed to have lost touch with the precisely carpentered joists which had always . . . underpinned his approach . . . He’s looking invertebrate, boneless, Danglard deduced.”
This meeting lays the groundwork for Danglard to become a danger to his own boss, and a traitor to the group. The poison of the crimes, like the spider venom involved, threatens to incapacitate and to kill.
What Danglard fails to keep in mind, though, is Adamsberg’s attentive intuition, as well as his grasp of the heart’s own reasoning. Solving the crime successfully will also demand winning back his team’s loyalty and building their strength. Vargas paints a stirring portrait of how a true leader does exactly that—while making sure the job gets done.
No surprise that Vargas’s books (“Fred Vargas” is a pen name; it’s Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau, a historian and archaeologist as well) have sold more than 10 million copies. It will be good to see more Americans enjoy the series.