I’d intended to read Fred Vargas ever since Emma first mentioned this French crime writer, so when she announced that The Chalk Circle Man was one of my Virtual Gift Exchange books, I had no more excuses. Well here it is, almost 6 months later, and I finally read the book–the first of a series featuring Commissaire Adamsberg.
The book begins with Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg freshly transferred as the new commissaire to the 5th Arrondissement in Paris. Adamsberg is originally from the Pyrenees and there’s the general impression from those he works with that he’s more than a bit strange and “primitive,” but in reality it’s truer to say that he’s not exactly the most socially competent person on the planet. He certainly hasn’t been promoted due to any glibness or ability to swing office politics in his favour. No, he’s been promoted thanks to a wonderful reputation gained through the solution of four murders.
In some ways, The Chalk Circle Man doesn’t feel as though it’s the first book in a series. There’s a definite sensation that we’ve slipped into a certain time slot of Adamsberg’s life. He’s 45, in love with Camille, a free-spirited woman who has disappeared by choice, and even though Adamsberg had casual affairs, Camille is always in the back of his mind. The book begins with Adamsberg solving the murder of a textile merchant in his own inimitable fashion. It’s the conclusion to this case that begins to build respect for Adamsberg from his skeptical colleagues.
Adamsberg’s next case involves the appearance of blue chalk circles drawn in the wee hours in various sections of Paris. Items, seemingly random items, are placed within these circles, and while it’s the general consensus that the circles, accompanied by a cryptic message, are the work of some harmless nutcase, Adamsberg is clearly disturbed by them, and he fears the worse. With the discovery of a body inside one of the blue circles, Adamsberg’s predictions are realized. Adamsberg has a serial killer on his hands.
Series books rely on a main character strong enough and interesting enough to pull in a repeat audience. I’ve always seen the appeal of a series character–after all, if you, the writer create a really interesting character–a police inspector let’s say or a PI, why drop them once the last page is turned? The most successful series balance the crime solving with the main character’s personal life, so we readers buy the next book–not because we want to read about the next crime, necessarily, but because we want to hang out with the main character again. And again. Adamsberg is a very appealing character, and his unique approach to crime struck a chord for this reader. There’s a scene early on between Adamsberg and Inspector Danglard (who incidentally is the perfect foil for Adamsberg) in which the two men discuss the subject of murder, and Adamsberg brings up a story from his past, concerning a dog, and he tells this story to illustrate some fundamental beliefs:
“The point of this story, Danglard, is the evidence of cruelty in that little kid. I’d known for a long time before this happened that there was something wrong with him, and that was what it was: cruelty. But I can assure you that his face was quite normal, he didn’t have wicked features at all. On the contrary, he was a nice-looking boy, but he oozed cruelty. Just don’t ask me any more, I can’t tell you any more. But eight years later, he pushed a grandfather clock over on top of an old woman and killed her. And most premeditated murders require the murderer not only to feel exasperation or humiliation, or to have some neurosis, or whatever, but also cruelty, pleasure in inflicting suffering, pleasure in the victim’s agony and pleas for mercy, pleasure in tearing the victim apart. It’s true, it doesn’t always appear obvious in a person, but you feel at least that there’s something wrong, that something else is gathering underneath, a kind of growth. And sometimes that turns out to be cruelty–do you see what I’m saying? A kind of growth.”
“That’s against my principles,” said Danglard, a bit stiffly. “I don’t claim my principles are the only ones, but I don’t believe there are people marked out for this or that, like cows with tags on their ears, or that you can pick out murderers by intuition. I know, I’m saying something boring and unexciting, but what we do is we proceed by following clues, and we arrest when we’ve got proof. Gut feelings about ‘growths’ scare me stiff. That way you start off following hunches, and end up with arbitrary sentences and miscarriages of justice.”
Both men have stories to illustrate their theories about crime and murderers, and these stories, which involved early cases in their respective careers, shaped their thinking. Adamsberg has a level of intuition about crime, so for example, he immediately intuits that there’s something sinister about the blue chalk circles while everyone else think they’re just the work of some harmless nut. Adamsberg, however, does not rely on intuition alone. There were several times in the novel when one small detail doesn’t quite fit with the established narrative of crime, and even though other people are satisfied with the solution, Adamsberg is not.
The crimes in The Chalk Circle Man are conducted by a somewhat implausibly adaptable and clever killer, and the best parts of the novel are the refreshingly bizarre characters connected to the story. Adamsberg has his own unique approach to solving crimes (which involves a great deal of solitary rumination and scribbling), and his sidekick, the melancholy Danglard, who doesn’t quite know what to think of his new boss, is a single parent swamped with children–including one dumped on him by his ex and her lover. There’s also unpredictable oceanographer Mathilde Forestier who has temporarily given up watching fish to watch humans, including the Chalk Circle Man. She believes in salvaging lost souls–not by charity or pity, but with her warm personality and generous nature. She has already salvaged seventy year-old Clémence, a creepy spinster who obsesses over the personal ads, now employed to do a little work for Mathilde. Mathilde meets a blind man, Charles Reyer, seemingly by accident, who’s struggling with bitterness at his condition, and she rents a room to him while refusing to allow him to wallow in self-pity. All these characters are somehow or another connected to the case, and the characters are so much fun, that they lighten the darkness of the crimes.
Lucky for me, there are 8 Commissaire Adamsberg novels in English from Vargas (including one graphic novel & the eighth in the series to appear this year). I have some catching up to do. So many thanks to Emma for choosing The Chalk Circle Man.
Translated by Siân Reynolds.