Extract from Michael Mitchell's translation

Friedrich Glauser's Fever

“Read that,” said Studer, sticking a telegram under his friend Madelin’s nose. It was dark outside the Palais de Justice, the Seine gurgled as it rubbed against the quai and the nearest street-lamp was a few yards away.

Once he was under the flickering gaslight the Commissaire read out, word by word, “greetings from young jakobli to old jakob hedy.” Although Madelin had been attached to the Sûreté in Strasbourg some years before and was therefore not entirely ignorant of German, he still had difficulty working out what the message meant.

“What’s this all about, Studère?” he asked.

“I’ve become a grandfather,” Studer replied morosely. “My daughter’s had a little boy.”

“That calls for a celebration!” Madelin declared. “As it happens that fits in rather well. A man came to see me today. He’s leaving tonight for Switzerland, on the half-past ten train, and he’s asked me to recommend him to a colleague there. I’m meeting him at nine in a little bistro by les Halles. Just now it’s —” keeping his woollen gloves on, Madelin unbuttoned his overcoat, its collar raised in a protective curve round his neck, and took an old silver watch out of his waistcoat pocket, “— eight o’clock. We’ve plenty of time,” he added in a self-satisfied voice. With the north wind whipping at his unshielded lips, he became philosophical. “When you get old, you’ve always plenty of time. Strange, isn’t it? Don’t you find that too, Studère?”

Studer muttered something. But then he looked round abruptly as a high-pitched, squeaky voice said, “And I may offer my congratulations too? Yes? To our revered inspector? My heartiest congratulations?”

Madelin, tall, lean, and Studer, equally tall only thickset, with broader shoulders, turned round. Trotting along behind them was a tiny figure. At first it was impossible to say whether it was male or female: its long coat came down to its ankles, its beret was pulled down over its eyebrows and its nose was wrapped in a woollen scarf, leaving only its eyes uncovered, and even they were hidden behind the lenses of a huge pair of horn-rimmed spectacles.

“You be careful you don’t catch cold, Godofrey,” said Commissaire Madelin. “I’ll need you tomorrow. The Koller business is unclear, but I only got the papers this evening. You’ll need to examine them tomorrow. There’s something not right about Koller’s papers…”

“Thanks, Godofrey,” said Studer, “but it’s me that’s inviting you two. After all, you have to splash out a bit when you’ve just become a grandfather.”

He sighed. Greetings from young Jakobli to old Jakob, he thought. Now you’re a grandfather, that means you’ve lost your daughter for good. Once you’re a grandfather, you’re old — on the scrap heap. But it had been a stroke of genius to escape from the empty apartment in Bern and the dirty dishes in the sink, even more from the green tiled stove in the living room that only his wife knew how to light; whenever he tried, the monster just belched out smoke like a badly rolled cigar, then went out. Here in Paris he was safe from such disasters. He was staying with Commissaire Madelin, he was treated with respect, was not addressed as “sergeant” but as “inspector”. He could spend all day with Godofrey, ensconced in the laboratory at the top of the Palais de Justice, watching the little man analyse dust and x-ray documents. There was a soft hissing from the bunsen burners, a somewhat louder one from the steam in the radiators, there was a pleasant smell of chemicals and not of floor polish, as there was in police headquarters in Bern.

The marble tables in the bistro were square, with ribbed paper napkins on them. In the middle of the room was a black stove, the top glowing red hot. The large coffee machine on the bar was humming and it was the owner himself — he had arms as fat as a normal person’s thighs — who was serving.

They began with oysters — and Commissaire Madelin’s favourite pastime: without asking Studer, he had ordered a 1926 Vouvray, three bottles at once, and he downed one glass after another. In between he quickly slurped three oysters, chewed and swallowed them. Godofrey took little sips, like a shy girl; his hands were small, white, hairless.

Studer was thinking of his wife, who had gone to Frauenfeld to be with their daughter. He was silent and let Godofrey babble on. Madelin was silent as well. Calm and unperturbed, two huge dogs, a skinny great Dane and a shaggy Newfoundland, ignored the yapping of a tiny fox terrier.

The landlord put a brown terrine with tripe on the table. There followed some bitter lettuce, and another three full bottles appeared in front of them; they were suddenly empty, at the same time as the plate with the runny camembert: it stank, but it was good. Then Commissaire Madelin opened his mouth to make a speech. At least that’s what it looked like, but nothing came of it, for the door opened and a man entered who was so strangely dressed Studer wondered whether the Parisians had their carnival before the New Year.

The man was wearing a snow-white monk’s habit and a cap on his head that looked like a huge red flowerpot made by an incompetent potter. On his feet — they were bare, totally and completely bare — he had open sandals; his toes and instep were visible, his heel covered.

Studer could hardly believe his eyes. Commissaire Madelin, who ate priests for breakfast, stood up, went to meet the man, brought him back to the table, introduced him — “Father Matthias of the Order of the White Fathers” — and named Studer’s name, adding that this was the inspector of the Swiss criminal investigation department.

A Père blanc? A White Father? The sergeant felt he as if he were dreaming one of those strange dreams that sometimes come to us after a serious illness. Light as air and full of delight, they take us back to our childhood when we lived out fairy tales…For Father Matthias looked exactly like the tailor who killed “seven at one blow” in the fairy tale. His chin was covered in a sparse grey goatee, so sparse you could count each hair of his moustache. And such a skinny face! Just the colour of his eyes, his big grey eyes, reminded you of the sea with clouds passing over it — and sometimes there is a brief flash of sunlight on the surface, which spreads its innocuous veil over unfathomable depths…Three more bottles…