Fred Vargas, Pars Vite et Reviens Tard (Have Mercy on Us All) (2001)

I read that one almost entirely in the train going to Bordeaux and back. I had as much pleasure as discovering the previous one, Sans feu ni lieu. The fun of the discovery has just been replaced by the comforting pleasure to meet favorite characters again and see how they evolve, just like in a good TV show. 

“Have Mercy on Us All” creates a small, imaginary Paris populated by oddballs, some benevolent, even if gruff from the outside, like the Brittany-born town-crier Joss, who announces public and private messages, news and ads three times a day on a small square near Montparnasse, the traditional Brittany neighborhood in the capital. Others are much less benevolent, like the mysterious person who leaves messages in Joss’ mailbox to announce an outbreak of plague in Paris. At the same time, strange markings appear on doors across Paris, copied from traditional painted marks from the Middle Ages, that were supposed to protect against the plague. The main oddball in this novel (differing from Sans feu ni lieu whose heroes were the Four Evangelists) is police chief inspector Adamsberg whose intuition is set loose by these cryptic messages and who will take the lead of the investigation when dead bodies start to show up. I wasn’t all that interested in Adamsberg’s private life, but I really appreciated to bump here and there on historical and literary references, like Samuel Pepy’s diary about the Great Plague in London. 

The only weakness is that this world is slightly too friendly and eccentric to instill real fear. It’s gothic and dark at times, but it’s not a thriller. It’s not a tightly-knit plot-driven crime story either, in the sense that details of the crime setup are unimportant. All the while you can’t believe that the story or characters are plausible for a single minute, yet it’s so charming that I quickly surrendered any attempt to read it with a critical, realistic eye. I’m really looking forward for the next Vargas, it’s quite addictive, if you want to try it, beware! 

While we were in Bordeaux, it just happened that the movie inspired by the novel was shown on TV. I resisted watching it, because I didn’t want to have my reading spoilt by ready-made images and real actors in the flesh playing characters that seemed quite surreal on the page. On the other hand, now that I’ve finished the book I’m curious to see how they adapted this very singular atmosphere. Did they manage to make it gothic and slightly mythological or did they turn it into a classic thriller? What do you think? Do you appreciate movie adaptations of favorite novels or do you prefer ignore them and stay with the text and the images you have in your head?

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6 thoughts on “Fred Vargas, Pars Vite et Reviens Tard (Have Mercy on Us All) (2001)

  1. I keep meaning to read Fred Vargas – lots of people do literary criticism on her (it is a her, isn’t it?).

    I like movie adaptations because I don’t require the book to be transposed exactly onto the screen. I appreciate it more when something different happens to it. Fiction and film are such different media that stories just have to be altered to fit the form, and I’m always very intrigued to see what alterations get done. That being said, I’d always rather read a book than see a movie, no matter what!

  2. I am glad you liked it. I sent it to my brother as a birthday present (he majored in medieval history).

    Apparently, the movie adaptation was appalling (check allocine.fr for a roundup of reviews).

  3. Oh, by the way, I got a Vargas book, Seeking Whom He May Devour. Based on your recommendations. I’m about a third-way through. It is interesting. Wnat to read Have Mercy On Us All, too. In English, though!

  4. LK, I’m so happy I convinced you to try Vargas. If the trend goes on and more and more people read her books, I should go and ask Vargas for a share of her copyright revenues 😉 !

  5. Pingback: Fred Vargas, Debout Les Morts (Fr. 1995, Eng. The Three Evangelists, 2006) « Smithereens

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