Fred Vargas lights her cigarette, leans forward and describes her all-over body condom. It's an extraordinary start to the day. But then Fred Vargas, the Parisian crime writer and archaeologist is an extraordinary woman.
I meet her at her Clerkenwell hotel for an early-morning coffee and the low-down on her new roman policier, Wash this Blood Clean from my Hand. It's the latest Commissaire Adamsberg mystery, a quirky series that has been a big hit in Europe. Vargas says modestly: "I'm not a writer. I'm telling stories, that's all. I'm unable to feel like a writer, it's too big for me," adding that she "just reads and tries to correct the music."
Vargas was born Frederique Audouin-Rouzeau in 1957 and grew up in the "sad landscape of Normandy". When she began her "silly" stories 20 years ago, she borrowed her nom de plume from Ava Gardner's character in The Barefoot Contessa. As we talk she perches impishly on the edge of her sofa, her keen eyes peeking through a greying fringe. She is a mesmerising combination of mischief and Gallic elegance. Her conversation is equally intriguing, as it flits between the various elements of her life.
But let's go back to that condom. Vargas is a premier risk assessor. Both in real and fictional worlds, danger is, quite literally, her business. After spending five years researching and writing the definitive study on the transmission of the bubonic plague, she has turned her analytical eye to the more virulent and present danger of avian flu. Her aim was to develop a barrier. The result, a breathable rubber suit for home assembly, is now being tested by the French Ministry of Health. "The virus remains alive for three hours, which is very long, contrary to the plague, which lives for two seconds. You go to a café, you push the door, get the droplets, touch your face, your hair, your coffee and..." (Vargas waves her hands around her head) "là, là, là... everywhere." I take my hand away from my mouth and look at my cappuccino with suspicion.
The desire to examine and treat "social dislocation and fear", whether attached to a global pandemic or her characters' predicaments, is an indication of Vargas's inquisitive approach to the human condition. "What I like is to find things. Find, find, find. Results. But when I'm writing a detective story I have invented the solution," she chuckles. "I have cheated. I like resolution. In life and in stories." It's her winning blend of empathy, humour and moral determination that place her books in the best-seller charts.
In Wash this Blood Clean from my Hand Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, Vargas's infuriatingly zen-like hero, finds himself in crisis. For three decades, the Commissaire has been on the trail of Judge Fulgence, a charismatic serial killer who spears his victims with a trident before framing an innocent bystander. When Adamsberg becomes the next fall guy his protestations fall on deaf ears, especially as Fulgence has been dead for 16 years. Le flic is suddenly on the run.
Vargas has created a wonderfully oddball police drama that has its own internal logic and bizarre motifs. Almond scented soap, cloudspotting, dead men walking and Canadian coffee etiquette are all as important as the murder weapon. What remains pivotal to a Vargas tale is the struggle between characters and their worst traits. As she explains: "Detective stories are like legends and fairy tales. Big stories, animal stories, not intellectual stories, never. They are about the danger of life."
Fulgence is "the minotaur" and Adamsberg's quest for control the "the labyrinth of the forest". It's the stuff of mythology: a journey that takes readers from a freezing police station by the Seine to the squirrel-infested woods of Quebec in search of truth. "I often say to youngsters," says Vargas, "the aim of the tale is not to get the money and to fuck the girl, but like in medieval legends it's the knowledge." Can you imagine PD James putting that on the record?
In the past few years, Vargas's forthright search for evidence has found her in the political limelight and, like Adamsberg, on the wrong side of the law. "The Battisti Affair" has seen to that. Vargas heads a support group for fellow writer Cesare Battisti, an ex-member of the PAC, the paramilitary Marxist squad that operated in 1970s Italy. "Instinctively, I dislike injustice," declares Vargas, who has never defended Battisti's membership of the organisation, only his innocence of the four murders for which he stands accused. After fleeing his home country, Battisti gained immunity from Mitterrand's government and lived in exile where he turned his experiences into a series of thrillers. Until, that is, over a decade later the order was retracted in what Vargas calls "a political deal between Chirac and Berlusconi".
The twin towers of Europe's right wing were, she claims, attempting to show a firm hand after their non-intervention in the Iraq war. Battisti has been in hiding ever since. As in her new book, with this case "the judge is the devil". For two years, Vargas was under observation by the intelligence services (they disappeared from sight over a year ago) and she still believes her phone is frequently tapped. So, is she in contact with Battisti? A smile is her answer.
I'm impressed by the value Vargas places on loyalty. Even with Adamsberg, who gets on her nerves and is such a distant creature, she acknowledges that she'd like to "copy his way of contemplating"'. So is she a romantic? "Yes," she beams. "Or I was. I am trying to..." and her hand cuts the air like a knife. "I find it quite dangerous." A tangible sense of loneliness hangs on the comment and I think how ironic it is that for one so skilled in the inspection of death and devastation, peril should lie in love.
To order a copy of 'Wash This Blood Clean From my Hand' by Fred Vargas, translated by Siân Reynolds (Harvill Secker £11.99), for £10.99 (free p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897Reuse content