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by Fred Vargas
Harvill Press, December 2003
321 pages
ISBN: 1843431548

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Fred Vargas is an historian and archaeologist - certainly not mutually exclusive professions. She (the 'Fred' stands for 'Frederique) has of late concentrated more on her fiction writing than archaeological research and HAVE MERCY ON US ALL is a tribute to her excellence in both categories.

I have sometimes found that clumsy translations can break the success of a work when published in a language other than the original. Fortunately for Vargas' readers, David Bellos has performed admirably with his sensitive translation. There are occasional lapses (for example 'Are you coming with?') but on the whole, the reader is able to immerse herself in the prose and forget that it is not a direct communication from the author.

The narrative is primarily located in Paris and opens with Joss le Guern running late for his self-generated job of reading his version of a news bulletin in his occupation of Town Crier. Joss had been a sea captain but the miserliness of his ship's owner had been the cause of an accident in which shipmates of Joss had drowned. Joss' incomplete vengeance wreaked on the owner had resulted in his imprisonment and subsequent inability to find work in his previous calling. Joss believes he is visited by the shade of his great-grandfather whose vocation was that of town crier, so he, too, took up the role.

Joss is remarkably successful as a news broadcaster, managing to eke out a very profitable living indeed, one augmented further when special notices, carrying more money than those he usually proclaims, begin arriving in expensive stationery. Nothing averse to this increase in his income, Joss reads the notices which are couched in archaic language and catches the unwilling attention of Decambrais, a scholar who previously engaged Joss in mutual loathing and contempt. Decambrais lets rooms and Joss is permitted to occupy one of the coveted habitations as the pair form an unlikely alliance.

The scholar, scenting something sinister in the texts presented to Joss, seeks the help of the Chief Commisaire, Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg. Intuitive Adamsberg realises there is a link between the quotations and apparent mirror image 4s that have been appearing around Paris. In a previous time the 4s were used as a talisman to protect inhabitants of marked buildings from the bubonic plague. Adamsberg, he whose memory stumbles at people's names, enlists the further help of other unlikely scholars and together they realise that the sender of the special missives received by Joss is predicting another onslaught of the Black Death. Then the first corpse is discovered.

Unlikely as it seems for a story resonating with the horrors of a plague of earlier ages, HAVE MERCY ON US ALL is written with a great deal of charm. The characters are delicately drawn with much painstaking care devoted to their personal vagaries. The pace is not hurried but ambles along, permitting Adamsberg to dally with the love of his life while Joss is entertained by the ghost of his forebear. There is loving attention to detail. The plot follows some convoluted paths and the resolution of the mystery came, to me at least, as a surprise.

I will be well pleased should further work by this enchanting author come my way.

Reviewed by Denise Wels Pickles, November 2003

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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