Friday, February 15, 2008

Have Mercy On Us All, a novel by Fred Vargas (2001)

This thoroughly enjoyable book is my second experience of French detective fiction writer Vargas. It is the opposite of hard-boiled - almost 100 pages pass before anything sufficiently alarming to involve the police happens.

These opening pages are devoted to introducing the central characters. There is former ship's captain Joss Le Guern, who (wrongly) spent time in jail after his ship went down, taking all hands. I had thought that this was going to be the dominant aspect of the story - the ship sank because its owners cut corners with safety, but Joss took the blame and was blacklisted from all French ports.

But the story took off on a whimsical detour instead. After a "visit" from a long deceased ancestor, Joss has taken up the curious calling of town crier in a Parisian suburb. It is surprisingly lucrative - he reads out messages at a minimum of 5 franc a pop:
Five: For sale, litter of white and ginger kittens, three male, two female. Six: Could the drum players making jungle noises all night long opposite number 36 please desist. Some people have to get some sleep. Seven: All types of carpentry, especially furniture restoration, perfect finish, will collect and deliver. Eight: The gas and electric company can go jump in a lake. Nine: Pest control is a complete scam. There are just as many cockroaches as before, and they take 600 francs off you for nothing. Ten: Helen, I love you and I'll be waiting for you tonight at the Dancing Cat. Signed, Bernard. Eleven: Another rotten summer, and now its September already. Twelve: To the attention of the butcher on the square. Yesterday's meat was old boot leather, that makes three time this week. Thirteen: Come back Jean-Christophe. Fourteen: Cops means perverts means pigs. Fifteen: For sale, garden apples and pears, tasty and juicy.
Three times a day, he reads out a similar batch to a fairly regular audience, who must also accept a marine weather forecast and a daily story from maritime history.

There is former school teacher, Hervé Decambrais, who has also had a run in with the law and who now runs some sort of counselling service and a small boarding house; one so desirable that Joss secures a place there. There is his tenant Lizbeth and their neighbours, Damascus and Marie-Belle, who run a skate shop. Everyone in this community seems to have elements of their past best not talked about.

Elsewhere, there is Chief Inspector Adamsberg, who has just been promoted to lead a crack murder investigation squad, and his assistand, Danglard. These two are chalk and cheese: luckily, each recognises the importance of the other. Danglard is a by the book, exercise of logic sort of policeman. Adamsberg is intuitive, a woolgatherer, one who takes long walks to solve his crimes: of course, he is extremely successful. He reminds me of Columbo, with his vague ways (much is made of his inability to remember names), his poor dress sense (Decembrais came across him during his mishap with the law, and thought he was in custody himself, such was his general appearance and demeanour), his solutions which seem to come from nowhere but so often prove to be right ("I said woolly, but I could have also said magical") .

One day, two apparently unconnected things happen. Mysterious signs start appearing on doors in Parisian apartment buildings. Adamsberg starts to investigate, despite his promotion and the lack of any murders, simply because he did not "like" the signs, and finds a lot of them. The second event is that Joss receives the first in what proves to be a sequence of odd messages:
When manie woormes breede of putrefaction of the earth: toade stooles and rotten herbes abound; The fruites and beastes of the earth are unsavoury; The wine becomes muddie; many birds and beastes flye from that place.
Decambrais, being a bookworm, finally works out what these passages are: they are extracts from a variety of narratives about the plague, which he sees as a warning. It is at this point that Adamsberg gets involved - he is not very interested, not until he hears that these messages started on the same day as the signs on the doors, and then hears that these signs were used to ward off the plague. Then people do actually die.

There is quite a lot going on in this novel about the differences between appearance and reality: many of the characters have found themselves in jail because it appeared they were guilty, whereas the reality was otherwise. Similarly with the plague, which has its tokens e.g. blackened skin. If those tokens are present, will people believe the plague to be present?

Someone is responsible for what is going on; as I read through, I got as close to solving the mystery as to decide that, well, it has to be one or more of the characters we've already met if the novel is to have any sort of sense to it, but i never really worked out who it was. Adamsberg's solution depended upon a mixture of orthodox police work, historians (Marc Vandoosleir, who was a central character in The Four Evangelists, is a medievalist and plague expert) and, ultimately, upon his own special technique of going for a walk.

There seemed to me to be a funny sort of pun involved in the thing that finally triggered his understanding of who was responsible; he arrives at his answer when a flash of a diamond catches his eye - is this a sort of punning reference to the flash of brilliance with which he solved the crime?

There is an intriguing story told about diamonds, one I am not sure how much credibility to give. When the plague struck, it was the poor who were most badly affected: the scientific explanation is that the plague thrives in situations of poor hygeine, so those who were well off tended to be cleaner and less vulnerable. But a belief developed that gems were good at warding off the plague (because rich people all wore gems and did not die). Diamonds were best of all, and so they became the thing to give to one to protect them from the plague, particularly if you wanted to keep them safe to marry them. In other words, our custom of diamond engagement rings is derived from the plague. It is a nice story but I haven't found much to establish its truth (but then, I have not looked very hard). I do know that Pliny saw diamonds as being proof against poison, but that's about it.



Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home