The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas

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The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: The first Adamsberg thriller, finally brought to the English-reading market, proves this author knew just what she was doing with unusual characters and absorbingly wacky mysteries from the start.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: February 2010
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099488972

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Meet Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg. An unlikely police commissaire, he's an acquired taste for his colleagues. Short, ungainly, seemingly thinking about the most obtuse things in his pursuit of the truth and endlessly doodling, but beneath his deathly slow speech and unexpected diversions into his childhood comes a surprisingly perceptive ability to find the culprit in whatever crime he is forced to solve.

We know this by now, for he has had four books featuring him published in English already. It's no problem for us to go back to his first case, for it provides us with just as many oddities as his others and a typically atypical approach to the whole genre.

For some reason completely unknown, blue circles are appearing on Parisian pavements, encircling some piece of trash, or a dead cat perhaps. No-one knows who is doing it, and beyond the intelligentsia and the chattering classes finding motives for it all, only Adamsberg it seems is particularly concerned. His worries prove correct when the circle next wraps up a dead woman.

If this is a crime that comes from left-field, the search for the culprit is out of sight. Among the main characters, among whom we might (or might not) cast our suspicions, are an elderly lady fixated on lonely hearts ads, a blind man angered by the accident that lost him his sight and who resolutely helps the sighted across the road, and a woman who's big in fishes, designing tables and tailing people like she was some private eye. Now you have to concede that's an unusual household.

In my mind the translation is perfect. The style of Adamsberg's mental working comes into the narration, so we get gnomic suggestions from the narrator such as They all sat nodding, without knowing why. There are moments when everyone just sits nodding. And here's my favourite dialogue, featuring Adamsberg:-

I'm trying to think.
To any purpose?
No. I'm getting nowhere. But I'm used to that.

I suppose there will be those finding our hero a little too introverted, a tad too meandering, and a touch on the odd side. I'm not saying I can conceive any reader finding this book sharing any of those qualities to its detriment, however. Come the end we have a heap of unsightly circumstances we need to gloss over to enjoy the unravelling motives, but I like this series a lot. This Night's Foul Work opened my eyes to the singular merits of such a dreamy style, and here there are telltales aplenty that Vargas knows just what she is doing.

There's the build-up from the flippant basis of the solving of one murder, through the exploration around the circles requiring visits to psychiatrists and philosophers. And on the genre writing front there is the way the usual calm-before-the-storm, the 'you've solved it too quickly' bit at the end, is so obviously present, but so deliciously entertaining.

It's not only on the genre writing front that I strongly recommend Vargas's books. This one, the shortest Adamsberg novel as far as I'm aware, will still appeal to those readers seeking a unique character. That of Paris itself comes through briefly but nicely, everybody written here it seems has their quirks, in a way that is not over-written, but merely shows the author's philosophy of the world, but the lead hero is unique and well worth accompanying through these pages.

I must thank the publisher's kind people for my review copy.

There is enough amusing charm in here, but for more out-and-out black comedy, we recommend Bloody Women by Helen Fitzgerald. We've also enjoyed A Climate of Fear by Fred Vargas and Sian Reynolds (translator)

Fred Vargas' Commissaire Adamsberg series in Chronological Order

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