When manie woormes breede of putrefaction of the earth: toade stooles and rotten herbes abound: The fruites and beastes of the earth are unsavoury: The wine becomes muddie: manie birds and beastes flye from that place
Joss's settled view was that folk walk faster in Paris than they do in Le Guilvenec, the fishing village where he’d grown up. They would steam down Avenue du Maine every day at three knots. This Monday morning, though, Joss himself was doing almost three and a half, trying to make up the twenty minutes he’d lost because of that blasted coffee.
It hadn’t surprised him one bit. Joss had always known that objects large and small have secret, vicious lives of their own. He could perhaps make an exception for pieces of fishing tackle that had never taken him on in the living memory of the Brittany fleet; but otherwise the world of things was manifestly focused on making man’s life sheer misery. The merest slip of a hand can give a supposedly inanimate object enough freedom of movement to set off a chain of catastrophes which may peak at any point on the Murphy Scale, from “Damn Nuisance” to “Bloody Tragedy”. Corks provide a simple illustration of the basic pattern, viz. a wine cork dropped from the table never rolls back to nestle at the boot of whoever let it slip. Oh no, its evil mind always elects to reside behind the stove, like a spider looking for inaccessible sanctuary. The errant cork thus plunges its hereditary hunter, Humankind, into a trial of strength. He has to move the stove and the gas connection out of the wall; he bends down to seize the miscreant bung and a pot falls off the hob and scalds his head. But this morning’s case arose from a more complex concatenation. It had begun with the tiniest error in Joss’s calculation of the trajectory required to shift a used coffee filter paper to the bin. It landed just off target; the flip-top lurched sideways then swung back and scattered wet ground coffee all around the kitchen floor. Thus do Things transform justified resentment of their human slavemasters into outright revolt; thus do they force men, women and children, in brief but acutely significant bursts, to squirm and scamper like dogs. Joss didn’t trust inanimates, not one bit; but he didn’t trust men either, nor did he trust the sea. The first could drive you crazy; the second could steal your soul; and the last could take your life.
Joss was an old and seasoned hand who knew when to yield, so he got down on all fours and cleaned up the coffee mess, grain by tiny grain. Since he did his penance without complaint, the thing-force receded behind its usual sandbank. The breakfast incident was quite negligible in itself, just a nuisance, but Joss wasn’t fooled. It was a clear reminder that the war between men and things was far from over, and that men were not always the victors, far from it. A reminder of tragedies past, of ships unmasted, of trawlers smashed, and of his boat, the Nor'easter, that had started taking water at 0300on August 23, in the Irish Sea, with eight crew on board. Yet Joss had always indulged his old trawler’s most hysterical demands; man and boat had always treated each other with kindness and consideration far beyond the call of duty. Until that infernal storm when Joss had suddenly got angry and pounded the gunwale with his fist. The Nor’easter, which was already listing heavily to starboard, started shipping water at the stern. The engine flooded, and the boat drifted all night long, with the crew baling non-stop, until it came to a grinding halt on a reef at dawn, with two men lost overboard. Fourteen years had gone by since that sad day. Fourteen years since Joss had beaten a lesson into the shipowner’s thick skull. Fourteen years since he’d left Le Guilvenec after doing nine months for GBH and attempted manslaughter. Fourteen years since almost his entire life had gone down that unplugged hole in the hull.
Joss gritted his teeth as he made good speed along Rue de la Gaîté, choking back the anger that surged up inside him every time the Nor’easter, Lost at Sea, breasted a wave of his thoughts. But it wasn’t really the Nor’easter he was angry with. That good old ship had only reacted to the punch he had given it by shifting its aged and rotting timbers. He was sure the ship hadn’t realised what the consequences of her brief rebellion would be, because she had had no idea just how old and run-down she really was, nor had she grasped how heavy the sea was that night. The trawler certainly hadn’t meant to kill the two sailors; she was surely full of remorse as she lay like an idiot at the bottom of the Irish Sea. Joss often talked to her, mumbling words of comfort and forgiveness. He reckoned the old girl must have found peace by now and made a new life for herself at full fathom five, just as he had up here, in Paris.
Making peace with the owner, on the other hand, was out of the question.
“Come off it, Cap’n Le Guern,” he used to say with a hearty clap on Joss’s shoulder, “you can keep the old girl going for another ten years, no doubt about it. She’s a sturdy ship and you’re her master.”
“The Nor’easter’s no longer safe,” Joss kept on telling him. “The hull’s out of true and the boards are warping. The flooring of the hold has worked loose. I’ll not answer for what she might do in a gale. And the lifeboats wouldn’t pass inspection.”
“I know my ships, Cap’n,” rasped the owner. “If you’re afraid of the Nor’easter, that’s fine by me. I’ve got ten others who’d take your cap at a moment’s notice. Men made of sterner stuff who don’t grouse about safety regulations like those wimps at the inspectorate.”
“I’ve got seven lads on board.”
The owner brought his fleshy, glowering face right close up to Joss’s.
“If you so much as whisper what’s on your mind to the harbour master, Joss Le Guern, you’ll be out on your ear as fast as you can say sea shells. Right round the coast, from Brest to Saint-Nazaire, it’ll be ‘Sorry, nothing doing’. So if you want my advice – think again.”
Yes, Joss was really sorry he hadn’t done him in right and proper the day after the shipwreck, instead of only breaking one of his legs and fracturing his sternum. But his crewmen – it took four of them – pulled Joss off his prey. Don’t ruin your own life, Joss, they said. They blocked him and then held him down. Later, they stopped him slaughtering the owner and all his henchmen, who’d blacklisted him when he came out of prison. Joss bawled the fact that the port authority fat cats were on the owners’ payrolls in so many bars that he made being taken back into the merchant navy simply impossible. Blackballed in one port after another, Joss jumped on the Paris express one Tuesday morning and landed – like so many Bretons before him – on the forecourt of Gare Montparnasse, leaving behind a wife who’d already taken her leave, and nine men to slay.
As the Edgar-Quinet crossing hove into view, Joss stuffed his ancient hard feelings into a mental back pocket, and clapped on full steam. He was running late, as the business with the coffee slops and the wars of the things had wasted at least fifteen minutes. Punctuality was a key part of his work, and it mattered very much that the first edition of his newscast should take place every day at 0830 sharp, with the second edition on the dot of 1235 and the late final at 1810. That's when the street was at its busiest, and in this town people were in too much of a hurry to put up with the slightest delay.
Joss took the urn down from the tree where he strung it up overnight with a double bowline and two bike locks to secure it. This morning there wasn’t a lot inside, so it wouldn’t take too long to sort. He smiled to himself as he took the urn into the back room that Damascus let him use in his shop. There were still a few decent fellows left, he thought, people like Damascus who would let you have a key and a bit of table space, without worrying about you running off with the till. Talk about a stupid name, though! Damascus was the manager of Rolaride, the skate shop on the square, and he let Joss use the place to prepare his newscasts out of the rain. Rolaride – that’s another ludicrous moniker, if you ask me.
Joss took the padlocks off the urn. It was a big wooden lap-jointed box that he’d made with his own fair hand, and dubbed Nor’easter II in memory of his dearly departed. A great fishing vessel of the deep-sea fleet might not have thought it an honour to have her name perpetuated by a modest letter box, but Nor’easter II was no ordinary mail drop. It was a very clever seven-year-old indeed, born of a brilliant idea that had allowed Joss to pull himself up the ladder again after two years’ unemployment, six months spinning cables and three years in a cannery. It was on a gloomy December night in a Paris café that Joss had been struck by sheer genius. The place was full of nostalgic Breton exiles droning on about their families and home ports, about when the fishing was good and the onions too. Some boozed-up old sailor mentioned the village of Pont l’Abbé, and all of a sudden Joss’s great-great-grandfather, born at Locmariain 1832, sprang out of his head, propped himself up at the bar, and said good evening.
"Good evening to you," said Joss, tightening his grip on his glass.
"You do rememberme, don't you?"
"Sort of . . . " Joss mumbled. "You died before I was born. I didn’t shed no tears.”
“C’mon, Joss Le...
Revue de presse
"Fred Vargas has everything: complex and surprising plots, good pace, various and eccentric characters, a sense of place and history, individualized dialogue, wit and style" (Times Literary Supplement)
"Moody, tense and grotesque, Vargas's prize-winning novel is a fascinating exploration of Paris's dark side" (Guardian)
"No procedural, this, as we follow the twists and turns of Adamsberg's intuition - but it is thoroughly high-class entertainment, notably as Vargas is not afraid to test herself with the narrative" (Time Out)
"On the basis of this elegantly twisted crime novel, Vargas is clearly an author who will rank alongside Henning Mankell. The detective, Commissaire Adamsberg, is the antithesis of Sherlock Homes: intuitive, preternaturally alert to hunches, and shabbier than Colombo. The plot kinks and switches in an utterly compelling manner. Creepy, sophisticated and wonderfully off-beat" (Scotland on Sunday)