Three times daily in a small Paris square, eccentric Joss Le Guern cries out the news items people have dropped into his box. Over a few days, a series of increasingly disturbing and eerie messages are left, the Plague their theme. Nervous tongues begin to wag. Strange markings are also starting to appear on doorways in various sections of the city; symbols once used to ward off the Black Death. Commissioner Adamsberg gets to hear of the bizarre events and senses something sinister. It’s a sense that’s borne out when a charred and flea-bitten corpse turns up, and panic starts to set in across the city…
Have Mercy on Us All is a strange, twisted, gothic thriller. Impossible to categorise, it is, like the very best of crime fiction, completely original. Originality is harder and harder to come across, given that so much has been written, but this prize-winning book has it in spades. The plot is like nothing I’ve really read before, an eccentric, esoteric examination of hysteria and plague, while still managing to be a detective story too. Vargas seems to have a fascination with fear and hysteria; old mythologies, old atavistic phobias that worm their way into an old, vulnerable part of the human brain and fascinate at the same time as terrifying, are placed in modern society, and she observes what happens. (The second novel, Seeking Whom He May Devour – which has just been shortlisted for the Gold Dagger, (and I hope it takes at least Silver) – is about werewolves.) Her subject matter is interesting; archaic and fatally fascinating. And her interest in the human response to hysteria and fear is nicely relevant in today’s world.
The characters, too, are unlike any I’ve come across before. They too are touched with the magical originality that lifts the rest of the book above almost everything I’ve read this year. An old ex seaman who now spends his days in a small Parisian square crying out news-items people drop into his box along with a coin? Genius! Elderly ex-teacher Decambrais, the an who realises the messages are warning of plague, is great fun also, and the old antagonism between he and Le Guern is oddly charming. These elderly gents behave in exactly the same way as younger people, which is nice to see. They’re all an odd, eclectic, eccentric bunch. Oddly sympathetic, despite often being a rather stubborn lot. The protagonist, Adamsberg, is like the rest of them quirky and interesting; he’s enigmatic, intuitive, and he carries what you sense is quite a lot of pain very close to his heart and protects it quietly and determinedly.
The translation by award-winning David Bellos is what gives the icing to the cake. It’s archaic, olde-worlde, brilliantly atmospheric and just as eccentric as the plot and the characters. It’s also a lot of fun. It helps bring across a sense of old history that’s crucial to the sense of the book; a kind of melding of mediaeval gothic with universal human nature.
Have Mercy On Us All is a fun, disturbing, quirky, engrossing, charming, fascinating read. It’s a superb crime novel, and it’s no surprise to know it won a clutch of awards on the continent. I can’t wait for more to be translated (and apparently there are quite a few). I can guarantee it’s like nothing you’ve read before; to sum it up best is to say that it is very, very French. Get it now.