Monday, April 26, 2010

Review of Have Mercy on Us All by Fred Vargas (Vintage, 2004)

Joss Le Geurn was the captain of a trawler before an accident led to a run in with the ship’s owner and banishment from Brittany’s fishing fleet. Several years later and he has taken up the family business as a town crier, working a square in Paris, reading out the messages left in his box three times a day. Over the course of a few days he receives a series of semi-cryptic messages, written in an old style, foretelling the coming of the Black Death. Then doors around the city start to be daubed with an ancient symbol that supposedly wards off the plague. In each apartment block a single door is left untouched. Detective Commissionaire Adamsberg is drawn to the case, sensing the work of a crank, but then the people who live behind the un-daubed doors start to perish, apparently showing plague-like symptoms. As the press start to speculate on whether the fatal disease has once again broken out in the city, Adamsberg seeks to track down a serial killer with a well-developed sense of history and purpose.

Have Mercy on Us All is a curious book. At one level it is a highly enjoyable read that rattles along at good pace, with colourful characterisation and an interesting plot. On another, the dialogue is weak (quite possibly a translation issue), some of the police procedural elements and plot are simply not credible, and Adamsberg, whilst an engaging character, is difficult to imagine as a cop in charge of a busy murder squad, whose antics border on Clouseau territory at times. For example, Paris is gripped by the threat of the plague, yet Adamsberg has loads of time to wander the streets pondering life, have an affair, and sit in a bar waiting for things to happen, seemingly without any pressure from his superiors, politicians or the public. One would imagine he would be flat out dealing with leads, directing his squad, and handling the media and other diversions. Overall, an enjoyable read that is particularly strong on characterisation and concept, as long as one doesn’t mind clunky dialogue and is able to suspend one’s belief in how the investigation is conducted (which I appreciate wouldn’t be a big issue for some readers).


pattinase (abbott) said...

I just read Wash the Blood From These Hands and had a similar reaction. It had some wonderful things in it, but so much of it was idiosyncratic for the behavior of a police officer. I liked it but I'm not sure why.

Rob Kitchin said...

That was my reaction - I liked it without quite knowing why, and yet there was so much about it that would normally drive me nuts! Very difficult to put my finger on why, overall, it worked okay. Strange.

seana graham said...

Yep, I agree with all of your comments. Some translation very questionable, plots wacky, but I've loved the two I've read. I think it's because there is some deeper psychological truth that makes you forgive all the rest. Well, made me forgive all the rest.

kathy d. said...

I think Fred Vargas is a genius, one of the most imaginative and creative mystery writers today.

Where else in a mystery would I learn about the bubonic plague and how poor people thought having jewels could protect them?

So it goes off on a few tangents--it doesn't bother me. I was glad to go with Adamsberg to those places, made the book more interesting and pleasurable.

It's an experience to read a book by Fred Vargas. There is creativity unhinged, a reading experience unlike any other.

But enjoyable--yes, in my book!

pattinase (abbott) said...

A good summary and I do wonder how much of our perplexity is due to the translation.

kathy d. said...

Perhaps the translation is a factor.

But I think Vargas' imagination is a major factor.

I always think it takes 80 pages for Vargas to set up the murder, and at the end 80 pages of red herrings.

But one can pick up a standard police procedural anywhere. A Vargas book is special.

To me it's like eating a wonderful meal at a French restaurant versus having coffee and a bagel (substitute doughnut, toast) at the corner coffee shop.

It's special and takes more out of a reader to deal with.