Joss's settled view was that folks walk
faster in Paris than they do in Le Guilvenec,
the fishing village where he'd grown up.
Have Mercy On Us All
by Fred Vargas
Translated from the French by
So why then did I enjoy Fred Vargas's novel, Have Mercy On Us All so muc? The first murder doesn't happen until over sixty pages into the book; we don't even meet the detective, Chief Inspector Adamsberg, until some 30 pages have passed. And quirky characters abound.
Take Joss Le Guern, self-appointed town-crier, for example. Joss has returned to the Paris neighborhood of Montparnasse after years at sea. Out of work, down on his luck, Joss decides to take up the old family line and declares himself town crier. When he puts up a collection box in a local park near a popular neighborhood cafe, people are soon inserting sealed envelopes with both messages and coins for his thrice-daily performances. Joss announces lost pets, lost loves, missed connections, items for sale, items sought, etc. and ends each presentation with a description from an historical record of ships lost at see, the death totals making up his closing remarks. Soon, he's making a decent living from this along with the neighborhood cafe where young men begin to gather each afternoon betting on whether or not that day's ship-wreck will end with "all lost" or not.
How's that for quirky.
The detective story begins when someone begins paying Joss to read out strange passages from old texts about plague outbreaks, each warning of the plague's imminent arrival. When someone begins marking front doors with a symbol once believed to ward off the Black Death, a local hotelier calls on old police acquaintance, Chief Inspector Adamsberg, who begins to investigate even before the first body is found, strangled but marked with charcoal, his skin made to look black as though he died from the plague.
Maybe I liked it because it takes place in Paris. Maybe the connections to Medieval history appealed to me. Maybe sitting in a Montparnasse cafe discussing the impending arrival of the Black Death sounds like fun to me.
Maybe all the things I usually dislike in a detective story somehow came together in a way that left me entertained. Ms. Vargas's tale pulled me in from the start taking me for an entertaining noir detective ride. While I can't say that Have Mercy On Us All broke any new ground or made an insightful comment on significant issues the way great detective fiction does, I will say that Chief Inspector Adamsberg and Ms. Vargas both have a new fan. I expect I'll be back for more.