Twice when I was reading this book, complete strangers accosted me in French to tell me how much they loved Fred Vargas, and to tell me which of her other books I should read. And I loved Pars vite et reviens tard so much that I eagerly wrote down the titles of other people’s favorites. Maybe some of the enthusiasm for foreign mysteries spawned by the Stieg Larsson fervor will spill over to Vargas, who deserves a big audience in the US as well as in her native France.
Like Benjamin Black/John Banville, Vargas is overqualified for the job of writing mysteries. She is actually a medievalist, and this novel is packed with … well, with information. In fact the chief protagonist, police commissioner Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, lights on the identity of a killer as he meditates on this person’s use of ellipsis in written communication. Yes, careful scholarship gets someone off the hook. You gotta love it.
But that happens toward the end of the novel. We begin in Montparnasse with an old Breton sailor who has taken up the career of town crier in the early 21st century. Someone is paying the crier to read messages that menace the town with the plague. Simultaneously, a symbol to ward off the Black Death appears on apartment doors in various Paris neighborhoods. Soon there are corpses, discovered with bites from rat fleas, the kind that carry the bacterium. Panic comes next.
The investigation falls to Commissioner Adamsberg, a deeply eccentric cop who does his best thinking while roaming the streets and has grave misgivings about becoming too much “like a cop.” In the time-honored tradition of odd-couple policemen, he is paired with the anxious, detail-oriented, buttoned-up Danglard, who feels affection and resentment for his unconventional boss.
The mystery is very well constructed, with switchbacks and surprises at every turn. It is not a thriller — Vargas is far too interested in the complexities of character to move the action along quickly. There is time to light on Adamsberg’s unfortunate love life; to visit a bizarre household of academics known as “The Three Evangelists”; to dwell on the remarkable properties of a calvados served in a café in Montparnasse. Some of this detail (especially the appearance of a kitten) would be awfully twee were it not for Vargas‘ equable acceptance of life’s mournful qualities.
The next Vargas book on my list, L’Homme à l’envers, (Seeking Whom He May Devour in English) is about werewolves. I can hardly wait.