Monday, July 5, 2010

The Chalk Circle Man, by Fred Vargas

Penguin Books, 2009
Originally published as L'Homme aux Cercles Bleus, 1996
247 pp.
translated by Siàn Reynolds

 While his crew of co-workers are trying to figure him out, the new commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg settles into his job in the Paris police force in the 5th arrondissement. Adamsberg started his police career in the "stony foothills of the Pyrenees," where another inspector told him that he wasn't "cut out" to be a policeman. But that was before he went on to solve several murders in the area, was promoted to inspector and then commissaire. When the job in Paris was offered to him, he grabbed it. Showing up to work with clothes in disarray, doodling all day, working largely on gut reaction and intuition, and moving very slowly, he didn't fit into what Adrien Danglard, one of his inspectors, considered to be the regular policeman mold.

This entire novel, like Adamsberg himself, is rather quirky, but the commissaire is just the tip of the iceberg.  There is an assortment of offbeat and unusual characters that populate this book (more later), as well as a rather peculiar set of crimes that occur, all beginning with someone who draws blue chalk circles throughout the city, leaving different articles in each one: one day it's paper clips, another day it's a lamb-chop bone, and yet another a swimming cap, etc. And around each circle is written the same phrase: "Victor, woe's in store, what are you out here for?"  The chalk circle phenomenon has become so widespread that the newspapers have a field day:

People will soon be jostling for the honour of finding a circle outside their door on the way to work in the morning. Whether the circles are the work of a cynical con artist or a genuine madman, if it's fame he's after the creator of the circles has certainly got what he wanted. Galling, isn't it, for people who've spent a lifetime trying to become famous? ... If he's ever tracked down, they'll have him on a TV chat show in no time (I can see it now: 'The cultural sensation of the fin-de-millenium'.  (23)
But Adamsberg senses that there's more, and orders Danglard to have a police photographer out in the street to photograph the circle that he feels will come that night. And Adamsberg's intuition serves him well, as the harmless chalk circles escalate into murder.

Besides Adamsberg, who while doing his job is always thinking about his lost petite cherie Camille, a woman with a pet marmoset named Richard III, the author has created some other rather off-the-wall characters. Mathilde Forestier is a famous oceanographer whose hobby is following people around the city. Living with Mathilde is Clémence Valmont, her seventy-something year-old assistant, whose teeth remind Mathilde of those of crocidura russula, and to whom she often refers as "shrew mouse." Clémence spends her evenings combing the personals, looking for romance, and going out on pointless dates. There's also Charles Reyer, blinded when he was dissecting a lioness to study its locomotive system, and was squirted in the eye with rotten flesh. (Seriously -- I couldn't make up this stuff if I tried.) And finally, there's Adamsberg's colleague, Danglard, whose wife left him with two sets of twins and a child from a love affair.  He's a good cop, but he also has a sense of compassion that doesn't stop, to the point where he worries about the sun dying in five billion years.  Danglard, who has a bit too much to drink now and then, often holds "case conferences" with his kids, where he discusses police work and allows them their own voices in "theorizing" about the crimes.

Vargas allows her characters to develop their own approaches to understanding Adamsberg's nature, but in the end, it's Reyer, the blind man, who says it best:
He just gets on with his life, letting it all swill about, big ideas and little details, impressions and realities, thoughts and words. He combines the belief of a child with the philosophy of an old man. But he's real and he's dangerous. (103).
And indeed, the commissaire turns out to be both. 

When I read crime fiction or mystery novels, I'm not so much interested in the "who" but rather the "why," as my primary interest is in that well-worn cliché about the evil that lurks in men's souls. I look for motivations and underpinnings in the criminal's psyche in determining the why.   I'm a puzzle solver and this type of fiction (if written well) appeals to that part of me. I also examine how the crime is solved. And then I decide whether or not an author has fulfilled my expectations in those categories. I must say that Vargas sends all of that flying right out of the window -- she has written a very unusual novel with a highly eccentric cast of characters that are so odd that in a rather bizarre sort of way, they become very real. A conventional mystery/crime fiction novel takes you on a path in which certain things are expected to happen, and as a reader, that's what you look for, and then you're mildly surprised with whatever plot twist may happen to get thrown in toward the end.  But Adamsberg and company are anything but conventional.   The author lulls you into thinking along the lines of  "it's this person, no, it's that person, but wait, that's also possible," and eventually it's "who can I trust in all of this?" But as you get into the possibilities of it all, Vargas comes up with an ending that hits you like the proverbial ton of bricks. And I liked it.

  The Chalk Circle Man was well written. There's no real sense of a guiding road map anywhere and the characters are so eccentric that they appealed to my sensitivity to the quirky side of life. While it may be a bit frustrating for most readers of general crime fiction with all of the philosophical outpourings from time to time,  it's good.  There is just nothing conventional about this book, and I think that's part of it its appeal. Most highly recommended.

fiction from France


  1. This book sounds wonderful! I really enjoy quirky characters in a mystery. The ones that feature a staid person with glasses and a keen mind just aren't as realistic or fun to read to me as the quirky ones.

  2. I think that the characters definitely drive this novel, even though the crime aspect is also very good. I now have the entire series & hope to get to the rest of them very soon!

  3. One thing I really like about Vargas is that no character seems too small to have at least one line to describe his or her quirks. It seems very real.

  4. Mme Boisvert: something is wrong with the comments moderation at Blogger, so in advance of your comment popping up, I will say this: I totally agree!


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