Why did it take so long for the wonderful mysteries of Fred Vargas – 12 of them, all bestsellers in France for a dozen years – to make it to an American publisher? Could it be because Fred is a woman – a distinguished historian and archeologist? Don’t ask: just be glad that that this engrossing, exciting and definitely original creation, first published in 2001, is now kicking up some critical dust here.
Lots of good mystery writers have used Paris as a setting, but I can’t think of anyone who recreates the back streets, the neighborhood shops and especially the people (most of whom come from some other part of the country, and carry their past culture with them as veritable talismans against assimilation) with as much energy as Vargas does.
At least a dozen major characters are introduced in Have Mercy On Us All, quickly and indelibly, from Joss Le Guern – a former sailor from Brittany who now earns his living as a modern-day town crier, reading out the letters which for reasons ranging from profit to revenge have been put into his private mailbox – to the absolutely riveting Chief Inspector Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, who can’t remember the names of his men, hates the paperwork vital to his job, and would much rather be out walking in a shapeless fog of thought than sitting in his office.
These two unlikely collaborators meet when a series of anonymous messages left in Joss’s mailbox (on expensive stationery and accompanied by a much larger than usual fee) appear to predict a return of the plague which decimated the city centuries before. Adamsberg and his assistant Danglard (a complicated character worth a book of his own who consumes vast amounts of lager, raises five children by himself, and revels in all the detailed work which his boss disdains) have been looking into the sudden appearance on hundreds of apartment doors of a strange painted figure – a reversed version of the number 4 – which turns out to have been a futile charm against the plague.
Then a body is found, bearing the marks of the bites of fleas which were known to be plague carriers. This is where Vargas’s feeling for the endless death chain of history really tightens, turning what started out to be an entertaining mystery into something much more frightening. Amazingly, thanks in no small part to the spritely translation by David Bellos, (“The man was short and dark, and he looked like a pig’s breakfast,” a woman thinks on seeing Adamsberg for the first time), not one bit of the grand fun of the book is diminished by these heavier overtones.