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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Have Mercy on Us All

Fred Vargas

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To purchase Have Mercy on Us All

Title: Have Mercy on Us All
Author: Fred Vargas
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001 (Eng. 2003)
Length: 353 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Have Mercy on Us All - US
Have Mercy on Us All - UK
Have Mercy on Us All - Canada
Pars vite et reviens tard - Canada
Pars vite et reviens tard - France
Fliehe weit und schnell - Deutschland
  • French title: Pars vite et reviens tard
  • Translated by David Bellos

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Our Assessment:

B : colourful, but a bit too elaborate a scheme behind it

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 28/10/2003 William Leith
Entertainment Weekly B- 11/11/2005 Whitney Pastorek
The Independent . 17/10/2003 Helen Stevenson
TLS¹ . 17/10/2003 Ruth Morse
The Washington Post . 27/11/2005 Kevin Allman

¹: See also the note at the end of our review.

  Review Consensus:

  Moderately enthusiastic

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is an unusual, eccentric thriller. One thing I liked was the idea that plagues are terrible partly because they kill people, but also because they drive people into extremes of madness and superstition. (...) Here, the build-up is better than the payoff. But I like these two detectives, and I would definitely try them again." - William Leith, Daily Telegraph

  • "It's a shame the plot isn't as strong as the atmosphere, but anyone who enjoys kooky characters and intricate detail will happily follow along." - Whitney Pastorek, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Apart from a good title (the original French was Pars Vite Reviens Tard), Have Mercy On Us All has not lost a great deal in David Bellos's expert translation, although it occasionally seems to have gained too much from Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable." - Helen Stevenson, The Independent

  • "The translator has simplified, adapted and anglicized throughout, diluting the specificity of Vargas's well-modulated French. This is not a matter of competence, but of style choices. David Bellos's translation is so free as to amount to wholesale rewriting, at the expense of the atmosphere. Reading his prose is like watching a hastily dubbed film." - Ruth Morse, Times Literary Supplement

  • "A town crier in modern-day Paris ? That's both the conceit and the launching pad of Fred Vargas's Have Mercy on Us All, which manages to be both an ingenious thriller and a meditation on code, communication and miscommunication." - Kevin Allman, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Have Mercy on Us All begins in a Paris neighbourhood inhabited by quite a few colourful characters, most notably Joss Le Guern, a former ship-captain who has resurrected the lost art of being a town-crier. As he explains:

People who've got something to say leave messages for me and I read them out. Not very hard. All you need is a voice that carries and good timekeeping.
       Three times a day he performs, and attracts quite a crowd. The messages people leave -- weighted down with the standard fee of five francs (and sometimes more) -- range from announcements of things for sale to personal messages.
       It's not unusual for Joss to find messages that don't make much sense to him, but suddenly he has gets a steady stream of obscure and archaic-sounding passages that are completely baffling. But it turns out there's method to the madness of the writer: the messages are quotes from medieval works, warning of the coming of the plague.
       Meanwhile, there's a sudden spate of graffiti-vandalism across Paris, buildings where all the doors -- well, almost all the doors -- have the same thing -- what looks like a mirror-image of the number 4 -- painted on them. They come to the attention of Murder Squad Chief Inspector Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, but it doesn't appear to be anything but a bizarre prank or perhaps an artist trying to establish himself with a large-scale installation of this sort. But when Adamsberg hears about the plague-warnings he begins to put two and two together -- and they do come close to adding up to that reversed four.
       When the first corpse shows up, looking like it had been visited by the Black Death, and when rat fleas (carriers of the disease) are found at the site, things begin to look pretty troubling. There are more messages for the town crier to deliver -- and then there are more corpses.
       It's a very elaborate crime, which bogs down the novel quite a bit with its artificiality as it's not quite ingenious enough for the book to stand on that alone. The idea behind the crime (a double-layered crime, no less) is not quite clever enough, either, though it does have some appeal.
       The atmosphere and characters make for much of the entertainment-value in the novel. Vargas takes her time in developing the story, lingering over the town-crier and his circle of acquaintances -- just getting away presenting such a quirky bunch. Various experts and criminals also are intriguing characters, which helps carry things forward. Not quite as successful is the fish out of water (but brilliant) Chief Inspector -- perhaps because French readers will already be familiar with him from his previous adventures, while this is the first sighting English-speaking readers get, and they're missing some or much of his background. Adamsberg goes his own way, from his poor taste in clothes to his loose ways with women (a failing love affair is among the weaker strands in the novel, though it might work over the course of a book-series), a generally appealing figure, but not completely developed here.
       The police procedural part of the novel is done solidly enough, for the most part, but it's a damned big and far-reaching case and far too often Adamsberg's instinctive approach leads the way. Yes, this is a novel which has exchanges such as this one:
     "I almost caught the man, yesterday, on the square," Adamsberg said in a rather muted voice.
     "The plague-monger ?" queried Danglard in surprise.
     "The monger himself. But he slipped away. Everything's slipping out of my hands, Danglard," he added as he looked up at his deputy and met his eyes.
     "Did you see something ?"
     "No. That's the point. I didn't see anything."
     "You didn't see anything ? So how can you say you almost nabbed him, then ?"
     "Because I felt it."
     "Felt what ?"
     "I don't know, Danglard."
       Not the sort of police-technique all readers will find appealing .....
       The use of the plague, the panic it sets off, and the reasons behind the crimes are all fairly clever, making Have Mercy on Us All a decent read, but there are longueurs and it seems a bit more trouble than it ultimately is worth.

       Note: Ruth Morse's review in the Times Literary Supplement (17 October 2003) was fairly harsh in its judgement of David Bellos' translation. Bellos' response was published in the 31 October issue of the TLS, where he states, inter alia:
Let me just reassure readers that the place names in Vargas's detective fiction have not been anglicized, and that nothing in this novel has been "simplified" or "adapted". Where there are (minor) differences between the French and the English, there are good reasons: in a couple of cases because there was a slip in the French, already corrected in the German translation; and in others because the author took the opportunity of English translation to revise or to cut.
       Note also Morse's response in the 7 November TLS, which includes the observation:
In his long and intemperate letter (October 31), Professor Bellos does not directly address the striking divergences from the original that these examples illustrate, but is pleased to describe his versions as "rather clever English transpositions" of the French. Readers can consult the passages which I quoted in full: no one but Bellos could describe the differences as "minor", given the substantial alterations and importations clearly evident, and I rather wonder whether anyone but he would describe his versions as "clever".
       It's an interesting debate, because Vargas' style is playful in its use of the medieval, as well as the Breton-flavour some of the characters bring to the book, posing obvious difficulties for a translator. Not having access to the original we won't weigh in on the merits of this translation (and Morse's arguments), but it's always good to be aware of these issues.

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Have Mercy on Us All: Reviews: Fred Vargas: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Fred Vargas was born in 1957. She is one of France's best-selling authors.

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