The Chalk Circle Man
By Fred Vargas, translated by Sian Reynolds.
So I come to the last book I have to read that is on the shortlist for the 2009 International Dagger award. It’s French, and the first in the Adamsberg series that has already won Fred Vargas this award for two years in succession (2006 and 2007).
Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg has been, until the start of this novel, a provincial police inspector of great unconventionality but with an unusually high success rate in solving cases. Therefore, as the novel opens, he’s recently promoted to commissioner in the Parisian force, and we see his eccentricities through the eyes of his close colleague, Inspector Danglard – himself a single parent of two sets of twins and additionally looking after a fifth child belonging to but abandoned by his ex-wife and her lover. Adamsberg has an instinctive, bordering on supernatural, style, as is shown by an initial vignette in which he correctly identifies the criminal in a case long before any evidence is found to force a confession from the suspect.
Despite the internal and external strangenesses of the sensual Adamsberg and the lugubrious Danglard, the story told in The Chalk Circle Man is at its heart a straightforward police procedural. Someone is drawing chalk circles on the Parisian streets at night, leaving strange objects in their centres. Adamsberg’s forebodings about the person behind this activity are soon borne out when a murdered body is found inside one of the circles. Despite intensive police activity, other murders follow, at different parts of the city.
An eccentric range of suspects is assembled even before the first body is found. An academic whose research speciality is deep-sea fish, Mathilde, has a hobby of following people round the city. One of these characters, a beautiful blind man called Paul Reyer, has disappeared and Mathilde, professing to be worried, reports him as missing to the police. She is ignored by all but Adamsberg, who rapidly finds the “missing” man (not missing at all). Soon, Reyer and another wanderer on the streets, an elderly woman called Clemence, are lodging with Mathilde in her fish-obsessed house. Clemence is addicted to answering lonely-hearts adverts, but is perpetually disappointed because each time she arranges to meet someone, he immediately abandons the old woman on sight.
How these three oddballs are going to become involved in the chalk circle story is not clear – but involved they are, not only with the mystery but also, in Mathilde’s case, with Adamsberg in a much more personal sense. As events reach their climax, the author plays fair with her readers and provides a satisfying, if sad, solution to the bizarre conundrum. At the same time, the author has piqued the reader's interest in the affectionate relationship (mainly unspoken) between Adamserg and Danglard, two men of very different outlook, to be explored further in future novels.
Much has been written about Vargas's alternative universe. I see her characters as acting like children in adult’s bodies. This novel is a fable, in which people live out their impulses, creative or destructive, without thought of consequence. Nobody plans for the future, living in the existential present. Yet the motivation of the murderer is cold and logically carried out – and would pass muster in a novel firmly rooted in pedestrian reality.
The book is peppered with acute social observations; cynical yet funny barbs at the media and modern society (the excerpts from the newspaper reports of the chalk circles are hilarious); and myriad tiny delights – Mathilde’s plan to spend a day following a man who is interested in the mythical rotation of sunflower stems, Clemence’s pointed teeth for which Mathilde likes to provide zoological comparisons, or little exchanges between Adamsberg and Danglard about Byzantium and the emperor Justinian (actually highly relevant to the mystery). If the reader is prepared to take this world as it is, then the book is very satisfying. Its eccentricities are charming (though the author is ruthless within her creation, which is no fairy tale) – they are bound up in the pace and focus of the novel, rather than distracting the reader from these essentials.
Thanks to Karen Meek of Euro Crime for my proof copy of the book.
Fred Vargas at Euro Crime: a listing of all the books translated into English, in order, with links to reviews.
Crime Scraps discusses The Chalk Circle Man and order of translations of the Vargas books, in a series of posts.
L A Times: Sarah Weinman discusses Fred Vargas's novels and the order in which they have been translated.
Other reviews of The Chalk Circle Man at:
Euro Crime by Fiona Walker
Mysteries in Paradise by Kerrie
The Independent by Jane Jakeman
The Guardian (brief) by Laura Wilson