Have Mercy on Us All is a crime novel in the tradition of Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. It is the twelfth in a series by the French author Fred Vargas, a woman who decided to take on this nom de plume inspired by Ava Gardner's character in The Barefoot Contessa. Vargas is also a historian and archeologist at the almost mythical Institut Pasteur, and the central story here-a suspected outbreak of the plague, the terrifyingly destructive Black Death, in modern-day Paris-emerged out of her scientific work on the rat flea, which carried the disease from Asia to practically every country in Europe, devastating about a fourth of its population in the fourteenth century. The flea rears its ugly little head in the book as well, showing up on every crime scene, and tapping into one of the deepest fears that has lain beneath the surface of urban life throughout history: contagion.
The Inspector who must solve this complicated and of course deadly
mystery is surrounded by a diverse cast, from his unattractive,
sensitive, hardworking deputy, Danglard, to a former sailor-turned
twenty-first-century-town cryer who accidentally becomes the fear-mongers'
principal collaborator by reading out twice-daily bulletins-transcribed from actual historical accounts by Samuel Pepys and others-portending the arrival of pestilence in the city. The originality of Vargas's characters-Chief Inspector Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, Vargas's distracted, confused, but ultimately gifted detective, hardly seems to have the energy, memory skills, or single-mindedness to be a detective-is at the root of the success of her novels, which are best-sellers in France, and which have been published in twenty-two countries. Judging by this, the first of her books to be published in the United States, another element of her success is probably the leisurely manner in which Vargas wends her way toward the outcome, allowing time for disconnected subplots as well as long asides into the past lives of her characters, and glimpses of their sentimental lives. Adamsberg, for example, has an intermittent, slightly sad relationship with Camille, a bomber jacket- and boot-wearing composer whose complicated separations and reconciliations from the Chief Inspector Vargas describes at one point: “She'd stayed away for years, and given Adamsberg the kind of grand burial that great love requires. Until he'd crossed her path by chance once more last summer. Though she'd blocked up the river, by some convoluted process the headwaters still ran as strong as ever. She'd put one foot back in while keeping the other on dry land.” Another character, Lizbeth, is a statuesque black woman from Detroit who has spent most of her life in French brothels and has lately become the den mother and muse for the rooming house where the town cryer lives: “She'd been sleeping rough on a bench in the square for ten days when [he] decided to haul her in one cold and rainy night. One of the four upstairs rooms that he rented out in his old house was vacant. He offered it to her. Lizbeth said yes, and as soon as she got into the hall she took off her clothes and lay on the carpet… “'Can't pay no other way.'” She also sings, and the town cryer and every other man who comes within earshot of her falls under her spell. At times one forgets one is reading a mystery novel.
However, Have Mercy On Us All is not entirely satisfying as a police procedural since so many of the possible suspects are clearly so dear to the author as to be practically free from suspicion. The lack of tension is also traceable to Vargas's conception of Inspector Adamsberg as a poet-seer, therefore more interested in coincidences and curious stories than in the rationale of evidence and crimestopping. This said, Have Mercy on Us All is an engaging read, and the absence of an obsessive drive toward a resolution is, in fact, one of its most appealing qualities, freeing the reader (especially one who is not a lover of crime novels) to enjoy details of quirky Parisian neighborhood life along with arcana about the dark side of European history, the Black Death.
Marina Harss has translated work by Pier Paolo Pasolini and Sonia Rivera-Valdes and is currently translating L'amore Coniugale by Albert Moravia. She is a researcher at The New Yorker.
Click here for an excerpt from Fred Vargas's Outside, Inside.