Three times a day in a Parisian square, a curious modern-day crier announces the news items that are left in his box. Over the course of a few days he receives a number of disturbing and portentous messages of malicious intent, all of them referring to the Black Death. Strange marks have also appeared on the doors of several buildings: symbols once used to ward off the plague. Detective Commissaire Adamsberg begins to sense a connection, even a grotesque menace. Then charged and flea-bitten corpses are found. The press seizes on their plague-like symptoms, and the panic sets in.
A bestseller in France, Vargas's U.S. debut presents a riveting blend of biothriller and historical cryptology: it takes a close look at the threat of bubonic plague to modern-day Paris. Joss Le Guern is a merchant seaman who, following the wreck of his ship and the end of his career, has strung an improvised mailbox onto a tree and taken to reading aloud local news left for him there thrice daily in the streets of Paris; he sees himself as a modern town crier. When odd, apocalyptic warnings begin coming in regularly, intrigued listener Herv Decambrais does some research and finds they match medieval texts that predicted the coming of the Black Death. Meanwhile, backward 4s begin appearing on apartment doors. At first, Chief Inspector Adamsberg (a comically forgetful, yet thoughtful and decisive character) and his deputy dismiss the markings as graffiti, but when they discover that the symbol was once used in parts of Europe to protect people against the plague and correlate with Joss's reports, the detective work intensifies though not fast enough. This exciting and careful whodunit is well-executed, page-turning crime fiction until its surprise but somewhat anticlimactic ending.