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Have Mercy On Us All: Chief Inspector Adamsberg Investigates    by Fred Vargas order for
Have Mercy On Us All
by Fred Vargas
Order:  USA  Can
Simon & Schuster, 2005 (2005)

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* * *   Reviewed by G. Hall

One of the nicest recent developments in the mystery field is the greater availability of mysteries by writers other than the standard North American and British authors. French author Fred Vargas, a historian and archaeologist specializing in the Middle Ages, has written a number of mysteries but they have only recently been translated into English. Her books are a welcome addition to the field for English-speaking readers.

The books feature Chief Inspector Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg. He is one of the most unusual mystery protagonists in a long time and a real breath of fresh air in a field where most sleuths seem to be cut from the same cloth. Adamsberg has no memory for names, and must be repeatedly reminded of co-workers' names by his long-suffering assistant, Inspector Danglard. He looks 'like a pig's breakfast' but has a surprising appeal to the ladies. He functions best by wandering the streets and, like Hercule Poirot, using his little grey cells.

Vargas has created a fascinating story set in a modest section of Paris, far from the stylish area, and populated by an array of very quirky characters. Former sailor Joss Le Guern has appointed himself the town crier and, for a fee, reads out notices every morning and night in the main square. Residents leave ads and messages in his wooden box attached to a tree. Le Guern soon starts noticing some weird, almost nonsensical messages written in archaic language which warn of dangers to come at certain dates. Decembrais, a local landlord, sometime scholar and relationship advisor, also starts to worry when he examines the texts. Then residents start noticing large black number 4s painted on apartment doors.

Adamsberg, at loose ends while his new homicide bureau is being set up, is intrigued by the puzzle but does not take it seriously until bodies of several residents from defaced buildings start turning up. Interestingly they live in the only apartments without the protective 4 on their doors. The bodies are covered in black charcoal and the dates of death seem to be related to those in the archaic writings.

After consulting with Decembrais (a teacher in his former life) and a medieval historian, Adamsberg finds out that the writings describe deaths due to the plague in 17th century France, called the Black Death due to the appearance of the bodies. Searching carefully, Adamsberg finds fleas, carriers of the plague bacilli, in the victims' apartments. As the deaths continue, Parisians panic and paint protective 4s on their doors while Adamsberg and his crew fear that they have a serial lunatic determined to spread the plague throughout Paris and beyond.

Have Mercy On Us All is a highly unusual mystery with a wonderful sense of place and colorful characters, most of whom seem to have hidden pasts which feed into the mystery. Although it takes a while to unravel the mystery, it is a pleasure to journey with Adamsberg along the way and learn fascinating tidbits such as why men buy their fiancées diamond rings. Three other Vargas/Adamsberg mysteries have been translated into English and the film version of Have Mercy On Us All will be released in early 2007 in France.

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