Mystery review: Have Mercy on Us All by Fred Vargas

Fred Vargas’ books are only just beginning to be published in Icelandic. I read this one first as it is the first one published, but it turns out that the second book to be published in Icelandic (English title Seeking Whom He May Devour) is an earlier book in the Adamsberg series. I hope it doesn’t matter much.

I actually read the Icelandic translation, Kallarinn, but I’m giving the English title so my English-speaking readers know which book I am talking about.

Original French title: Pars vite et reviens tard
Genre: Murder mystery
Year of publication: 2001
No. in series: 4
Series detective: Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Paris (mostly, France), contemporary

A man who has revived the ancient profession of town crier has been getting messages that are copied passages from old books about the Plague. At the same time the police are baffled by a mysterious symbol that appears on doors across Paris and turns out to be a protective sign against the Plague. Soon, people who lived in the buildings with the marked doors but whose doors were not marked, start dying. It is really the Plague, or are Adamsberg and company dealing with a very clever killer with a specific motive?

This is an excellent book on several levels, not just as a mystery but as a novel. The quality of the writing is excellent, the characters and their interpersonal relationships are realistic, and the mystery is layered and complicated. Additionally, there is some interesting information about the Plague woven into the narrative, and you know that Vargas isn’t making these things up, because she is an expert on the Plague. The story is told from several points of view, mostly that of Joss Le Guerns, the town crier who receives and reads the Plague messages, and that of the police, mostly Adamsberg but also his sidekick, Danglard. This makes it possible for the reader to compete with the detective, something I always appreciate in a mystery.

The tension builds slowly – you get a sense of creeping menace at the beginning which near the end has become pulse-quickening excitement. And this is no cosy. There are heart-wrenching descriptions of brutality and people doing twisted things to each other. There is staggering unfairness, hatred, envy and lust, but also love and tenderness. All of this comes together to make one hell of a story.

Rating: An excellent read: thrilling, complicated and brutal. 5 stars.

Awards: Prix des libraires


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