The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas – review

July 30, 2009

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Fred Vargas is a French crime writer who fits perfectly the image of the chain-smoking, cafe-haunting intellectual. Her novels (yes, Fred is a woman – real name Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau) have won the Crime Writers’ Association International Dagger in three of the last four years. She just won it again, for her novel The Chalk Circle Man, published in France in 1996 but only now available in English, in a translation by Sian Reynolds.

Vargas’s hero is Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, an unconventional policeman raised in the Pyrenees and transferred to Paris,  where he baffles his colleagues with his long silences, apparent lack of interest, shoddy dress and eccentric requests. But Adamsberg has a gift – an instinct for evil, and an ability to make obscure connections that elude his more orthodox colleagues.

Someone is drawing blue chalk circles on the streets of Paris, with an oracular statement written around the outside, and curious objects left inside the circles. Are they the work of a  harmless nutter?  Adamsberg doesn’t think so – “There’s cruelty oozing out of those circles” – and is proved right when a woman’s body turns up in a circle, her throat cut.

More circles, and bodies, follow. As Adamsberg, in his seemingly desultory way, leads the investigation, his path crosses that of other eccentrics: Mathilde, a middle-aged oceanographer whose hobby is following people; Reyer, an embittered blind man (“I believe I’m the most intelligent person on the planet, and my voice is like a metal cutter”); an elderly lady, beret-wearing and Gauloise-smoking, who obsessively answers lonely-hearts ads; and a pipe-smoking specialist in Byzantine history.

chalk_circle_manThere’s a strong and ingenious plot here, which will keep crime devotees happy; there is also plenty of good writing and acute psychological observation. “It was an odd thing, but all the inspectors seemed to be becoming porous, letting Adamsberg’s way of behaving seep into them. It was like being caught in the rain when your jacket can’t help absorbing water.”

On the negative side there is a bit too much Left Bank philosophising: “[Adamsberg] felt that while being unable to observe himself, he did indeed ‘perceive himself’ … if only because he sometimes felt uncomfortable at being conscious.” I could have done without this, but it all adds to the nouvelle vague-ish feel.

Adamsberg has a secret : his lost “petite cherie”,  Camille of the “very elegant gestures”, who makes a few fleeting appearances through the novel. We never quite discover what went wrong between the lovers, but Camille seems certain to return in later books. Vargas makes Adamsberg’s romantic melancholy real and affecting. Slow to get moving in a murder enquiry, he breaks into a desperate run when Camille appears.

I’d say Vargas deserves her prizes and I’ll be revisiting Paris to check in on Adamsberg’s next case.

P.S.  Fred Vargas is by far the most popular search term for people who land on my blog – so if you are a Vargas fan, feel free to leave a comment about why you like her work and which of her novels I should read next …

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