Monday, May 18, 2009

The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas

The Chalk Circle Man is the fifth of Fred Vargas's Commissaire Adamsberg novels to be translated into English, but it's actually the first in the series. Readers like me who are already committed fans will relish the opportunity it offers to explore Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg's origins—the beginning of his career on the Paris police force, the evolution of his partnership with his favourite inspector (and mine), Adrien Danglard, and some background to his one-time relationship with the elusive Camille and its continuing effect on him. And those new to the series have the option now of beginning at the beginning and reading the books in order.

Commissaire Adamsberg is a police detective like no other. Of course there are many fictional detectives who use their intuition, but Adamsberg is all intuition. Rather than doggedly searching for answers, it's as if he simply drifts about until answers find him. You wouldn't think this would be a popular approach with the investigators who find themselves working under his supervision. But Adamsberg's reputation precedes him, and within weeks of his arrival in Paris they witness some of his successes first hand, so they soon begin to embrace the man and his methods. When the mysterious blue chalk circles that have been appearing overnight in various districts of Paris prove to be not a prank but something more sinister, as Adamsberg alone suspected, and he and his team go out to investigate, we see this gradual embrace through the eyes of the more methodical and conventional Danglard:

Adamsberg had spoken without haste. It was the first time Danglard had seen him giving orders. He did so without seeming either self-important or apologetic about doing so. 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. The inspectors were becoming damp and without realizing it they were imitating Adamsberg; their movements were slower, they smiled more, and were absent-minded. The one most altered was Castreau, who as a rule liked the gruff, manly responses their previous commissaire had expected of them, the military commands barked out without any superfluous commentary, the ban on looking to either side, the slamming of car doors, the fists clenched in the tunic pockets. Today, Danglard hardly recognized Castreau. He was leafing through the victim’s pocket diary, quietly reading out sentences to himself, glancing attentively at Adamsberg, apparently considering every word.

Though the other police officers provide something of a contrast to Adamsberg, he is by no means the only eccentric character in the novels. The whole of Vargas's fictional Paris is a bit off kilter, full of odd characters and esoteric detail. In The Chalk Circle Man, prime among them is Mathilde Forestier, a famous oceanographer, who lives her life according to a rather original theory of the breakdown of the days of the week, and spends a good bit of her time tailing strangers around the city taking notes on their activities. She is drawn into the plot when one of the subjects of her scrutiny turns out to be the chalk circle man of the title.

I thoroughly enjoyed all of this, but I have to concede that The Chalk Circle Man is not as strong as subsequent books in the series. It suffers a bit from the first-in-a-series tendency to fill in the background with a lot of description, and I would rather simply watch Adamsberg's unorthodox methods of detection in action than be told about how his mind works. Also, although, given those unorthodox methods, logic and believability are rarely central concerns, the plot doesn't come together as convincingly or conclude as satisfyingly as in later installments. In fact, I'd say there's a gaping hole in the resolution of the central mystery. Nevertheless, I still recommend it. Even when not at her best, Vargas is still awfully good. And wherever you enter into it, her Comissaire Adamsberg novels comprise an excellent series that is well worth reading.


litlove said...

I'm a recent convert to Fred Vargas having only read one novel (The Three Evangelists, I believe in translation), but I loved that and am looking forward to more. What have you enjoyed most by her, Kate?

Kailana said...

Sounds like fun! I think I remember you posting about these books in the past. :) Glad you are back to blogging regularly, btw!

Kate S. said...

litlove, I think that my favourite is Have Mercy on Us All. It's the third book in the Commissaire Adamsberg series and the plot revolves around fears of a resurgence of black plague in modern day Paris. A bit of a tie in with your recent post on anxiety perhaps!

Kailana, Thank you. I've been enjoying getting back to regular blogging and reconnecting with all my blogging pals!

Anonymous said...

This sounds like fun and I enjoyed the excerpt you posted. I'm going to try one of the later novels. Thanks!