Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Fred Vargas has won international praise and a very loyal following for her Commissaire Adamsberg series. And that’s not to mention the three International Dagger Awards her work has won. This feature can only be improved by including a Vargas novel so let’s do that today. Let’s turn the spotlight on the first of her Adamsberg stories, The Chalk Circle Man.
As the novel begins, Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg has just been assigned to Paris’ 5th arrondissement. He’s a little unconventional (I’ll return to that shortly) but he has solved some very difficult crimes, so no-one can argue that he’s unqualified. Very soon, he’s challenged by a most unusual sort of case. Someone has been drawing circles in blue chalk on the pavement in different parts of Paris. On each circle there’s a cryptic message: Victor, woe’s in store. What are you out here for? For several months the circles and their creator seem harmless enough if crazy. Inside the circles are a wide variety of different things ranging from notebooks to an orange to a hat, and including all sorts of other things. The police don’t seem to be able to find the person the media has dubbed the Chalk Circle Man, but for a while no real harm is done.
One day, Adamsberg gets a visit from Mathilde Forestier, who’s a little unusual herself. She wants police help in finding Charles Reyer, a blind man with whom she struck up an acquaintance but who seems to have disappeared. In the course of their conversation Adamsberg learns that she has seen the chalk circle artist at work and can give a vague description of him. The two become allies if you will as each provides the other information.
That information becomes even more urgent when the body of Madeleine Châtelain is found in a newly-drawn circle. She didn’t have any obvious enemies, a large fortune or secret knowledge, so there seems no motive for the murder. The police are looking into that case when another body is found. This time the body is of seventy-two-year-old Gérard Pontieux. Like the first victim, he led a fairly quiet life and didn’t seem to have made any enemies. Then the body of Delphine Le Nermord is found in yet another circle. Again, there is no really obvious motive, and nothing seems to connect the three murders. It seems then that the chalk circle artist is a psychopathic killer.
But there are signs that the artist and the killer may be different people. Certainly Mathilde Forestier thinks so and she does her best to convince Adamsberg that she’s right. And even if they’re not, Adamsberg comes to believe that this isn’t the work of a lunatic. Little by little, Adamsberg makes sense of the evidence as well as his own perceptions of the case. And in the end, he and his team find out the truth about the chalk circles and the murders.
This is a police procedural, so readers follow along as Adamsberg and his team members gather the evidence, interview witnesses and family members and so on, and make sense of the crimes. They are solved in a credible way.
But Adamsberg doesn’t always think like an ordinary cop (if there is such a thing). He has a certain sense about people and events. Here for instance is what he says to his assistant Adrien Danglard about the chalk circles, even before the murders:
‘There’s something horrible underneath all this, can’t you feel it?’
‘A bit unhealthy, that’s all. But perhaps it’s just some long-drawn-out practical joke.’
‘No, Danglard. There’s cruelty oozing out of those circles.’
In many ways, Adamsberg is a practical, down-to-earth person. But there’s a certain dreaminess as you might call it to his way of thinking. He uses his intuition and he thinks outside of the proverbial box. And that aspect of his approach to crime solving bothers Danglard. But at the same time, Adamsberg also has a way of putting people at ease and Danglard notices that he’s brought a certain calmness to the atmosphere at the police station. On the one hand, Adamsberg is a little eccentric, even enigmatic. On the other, he’s realistic in many ways and credible.
This is the first novel in the Adamsberg series, so several of the regular characters that fans have come to know haven’t appeared yet. But this novel lays the groundwork for what will become a loyal group of offbeat but talented police professionals who are interesting as individuals and a force to be reckoned with as a group. For example, Danglard has a complicated home life and admits himself that he’s not much good after about 4:00 pm because he is fond of his wine. But he is a skilled interviewer, a dogged investigator and he’s both smart and shrewd. Adamsberg sees the talent in his colleague and accepts Danglard for exactly the person he is. As Danglard sees what a good cop and supportive boss Adamsberg is, the feeling becomes mutual.
There’s an offbeat sense of humour in the novel too. Here, for instance, Mathilde Forestier is explaining her philosophy of the days of the week, which she divides into sections:
‘If you pay attention, you’ll see that there are more serious surprises in section one [Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday] as a rule – note that I’m saying as a rule – and more fun and distractions in section two. It’s a question of rhythm. It never switches over like the parking in the street, where you have to park one side one week and the other the next. Why do they do that, anyway? To give the street a rest? Let it lie fallow? No idea.’
And what sets Adamsberg apart from a lot of other police detectives is that he understands immediately what she means about sections of the week.
The novel takes place in Paris, and Vargas makes that clear to the reader:
‘The following Thursday morning two circles were discovered: in the rue de l’Abbé-de-l’Epée was the cork from a wine bottle, and in the rue Pierre-et-Marie-Curie in the 5th arrondissement, lay a woman…’
What’s especially effective about Vargas’ depiction of Paris is that this is not the Paris of romantic films and songs or of tourism. It’s everyday Paris – a real city where real people live.
The Chalk Circle Man is an offbeat (yes, pun intended ;-) ) police procedural with an appealing sleuth, a wry way of looking at life, and a strong sense of place. The mystery is believable when we find out what’s behind it, and the solution is credible. What’s more, this is the start of one of the more highly-regarded crime fiction series of recent years. But what’s your view? Have you read The Chalk Circle Man? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 2 December/Tuesday 3 December – Ratking – Michael Dibdin
Monday 9 December/Tuesday 10 December – The Silent Wife – A.S.A. Harrison
Monday 16 December/Tuesday 17 December – Death of a Red Heroine – Qiu Xiaolong