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pars vite et reviens tard

13 july 2019

Just over a month ago, I was not a Fred Vargas fan, but now I am totally won over. Such are the vagaries of detective series: sometimes you start with the wrong one, even if you start at the beginning. Sometimes you get the sense that the author herself started with the wrong one.

Fred Vargas may have started her Adamsberg series dissatisfyingly with L'homme aux cercles bleus (1996), but she followed up with the rousing Homme à l'envers (1999), and continued her winning streak with Pars vite et reviens tard in 2002.

Like L'homme à l'envers, Pars vite et reviens tard features an occult angle. Like its predecessor, Pars vite eventually settles on a prosaic explanation for its occult elements; but that doesn't stop it from being distinctly creepy along the way.

At the behest of a long-dead ancestor (or perhaps of the voices in his head), a Breton ex-con named Joss Le Guern has taken up the position of town crier to the neighborhood near Paris' Montparnasse train station. It's around the turn of the 21st century, so Joss' vocation is a very-low-tech version of Craigslist (or whatever Minitel equivalent existed in France c1999). People drop notices in a box, and attach a five-franc coin. Joss reads the notices, three times a day.

Or most of them. He won't read defamatory stuff, or mere trolling. The messages that have begun to creep into play as the novel opens are harder to triage, though. They are polyglot notes consisting of seemingly pointless diary entries, mixed with vatic early-modern rumblings about some hard times to come. But as Joss' literary friend Decambrais soon notices, the "special" items narrow towards a common theme: a coming plague.

Not just any plague, but the Plague, the black medieval one. ("Pars vite et reviens tard" is old-school advice on avoiding the plague: go away fast and come home a long time from now.) Meanwhile, Commissaire Adamsberg, a patron of lost causes, has taken an interest in a random woman's uninteresting complaint about a weird new graffiti tag that has shown up in her apartment building: a back-to-front number "4." The cases converge when Adamsberg learns that that strange numeral used to be a charm against the plague. And then the corpses start to pile up …

The story is well-constructed, using elements of the "cozy" (the perp seems inevitably to be connected to Joss' Montparnasse circle) but also elements of contemporary serial-killer thrillers. Character, as in Vargas' other polars, is crucial. Adamsberg is still involved with the love of his life, Camille, the woman he'd reconnected with in L'homme à l'envers. But can Camille ever stay put for long – and is Adamsberg capable of working to keep her around? Danglard, Adamsberg's longsuffering, hyperrational sidekick, is fighting alcoholism and depression. Joss, Decambrais, and their friends are well-drawn, and the members of Adamsberg's new homicide squad come into focus through the filter of their boss's hazy memory for names and faces. Pars vite et reviens tard is good, extravagant entertainment.

Vargas, Fred. Pars vite et reviens tard. 2002. Paris: J'ai Lu, 2018.