Category Archives: Fred Vargas

Watcha Gonna Do When They Come For You*

PoliceProceduralsFor many people, there’s something fascinating about what police do, and how they go about their jobs. Perhaps it’s the huge number of cop shows on TV, or perhaps it’s the image of the cop making things safe and putting the ‘bad guys’ away, so to speak. Or it could be the chance to get a look ‘behind the scenes’ of a unique setting. Perhaps it’s something else. Whatever it is, police procedurals have become a popular staple in crime fiction.

Interestingly enough, the police procedural as we think about it now is newer than some of the other sub-genres in crime fiction. For example, the private detective novel has been around since the days of Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. But that makes sense. Modern police forces weren’t really put together until the 19th Century and it took even longer for them to become the kinds of police forces we think of today. If you want to know more about 19th Century police forces, check out K.B. Owen’s terrific blog/website. She’s an expert on the era.

Certainly there’ve been police officers mentioned in many classic/Golden Age novels. There Agatha Christie’s Chief Inspector Japp, there’s Stuart Palmer’s Oscar Piper and there’s Josephine Tey’s Alan Grant, to name just three. There’s also of course Ellery Queen’s Inspector Richard Queen, and Rex Stout’s Inspector Cramer. But the police procedural novel as we think of it now really started a bit later.

There isn’t universal agreement about which book counts as the first police procedural, but Lawrence Treat’s 1945 novel V as in Victim is often brought up. This is just my opinion, so feel free to differ if you do, but for my money, the series that that really established the police procedural as a sub-genre was Evan Hunter/Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels. Beginning with 1956’s Cop Hater, the series went on for decades, almost until Hunter’s death. In that series, we see quite a lot more of life at a police station/precinct than we’d seen in previous kinds of crime novels. What’s more, this series doesn’t just follow one cop going after one criminal or criminal gang. There’s an ensemble cast in this series, and we follow not just the individual cases they investigate, but also their personal lives. The 87th Precinct series has had a profound influence on the genre in general and of course on the police procedural.

Another set of groundbreaking police procedurals is Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s ten-book Martin Beck series. Those novels follow Stockholm-based Martin Beck and his police colleagues as they investigate murders, robberies, and more. They also highlight a variety of social issues such as unequal distribution of wealth, corruption and other issues. Like the 87th Precinct series, this one also addresses the personal lives of the characters. For many people, the Martin Beck series is the quintessential police procedural series.

In the last few decades, the police procedural as a sub-genre has gotten very diverse as it’s been taken in new directions. For instance, some police procedurals still feature an ensemble cast of characters. Fans of Fred Vargas’ Inspector Adamsberg series and Arnaldur Indriðason’s Inspector Erlendur series, for instance, will know that those novels follow the lives of several of the characters, both in and outside working hours. So does Frédérique Molay’s Nico Sirksy series (I hope more of them will be translated into English soon).

Other series focus more on one or a few cops. For instance, in Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series, the spotlight is mostly on Bosch. We certainly learn about other characters, and there are several story arcs involving them. But the primary emphasis is on Bosch. You could say the same thing about Karin Fossum’s Konrad Sejer series. We do learn about other characters, but the focus in that series is on Sejer’s professional and personal life. Another example of this is Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series. While there are story arcs and scenes involving other characters, it’s Rebus who’s the ‘star of the show.’

One major development in the police procedural series is that it’s gone worldwide. And that means that the different series have taken on the distinctive atmosphere of their settings. I’m thinking for instance of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip’s David ‘Kubu’ Bengu series, which takes place in Botswana and which they write as Michael Stanley. There’s also Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen Cao series, and Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series. And that’s just to name three of the many police procedural series that are seasoned by their cultures.

Another development is the diversity in the kinds of people who feature in police procedural series. Women, for instance, are quite frequently police protagonists now. That’s what we see in Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi series, Martin Edwards’ Lake District series and Anya Lipska’s Natalie Kershaw/Janusz Kiszka series. Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan series is another example. That increasing diversity shows up in other ways too. There are gay cops, disabled cops and cops with all sorts of eccentricities.

Despite all of this variety, though, you could argue that there are still some basic things that define a police procedural series. One is that it focuses on police stations, bases or precincts and the people who work there. There are often sub-plots and story arcs that show us the cop’s off-duty life, but there is an emphasis on the investigation and on life as a police officer. Another, at least to me, is that the police procedural features a certain kind of investigation style that involves interpreting evidence, interviewing witnesses and suspects and so on. In that sense it’s quite different to the amateur sleuth, who doesn’t have the power of the law, or the PI sleuth, who goes about investigations in yet another way. Police culture, policies and the like have a strong impact on the way cops go about their jobs, and that makes their investigations distinctive.

What do you think? If you read police procedurals, what is their appeal to you? Which ones do you like the best (I know I’ve only mentioned a few of them) What, to you, makes a police procedural series a good one? If they put you off, why? If you write police procedurals, what made you choose that sub-genre?

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is line from Inner Circle’s Bad Boys.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Arnaldur Indriðason, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ed McBain, Edgar Allan Poe, Ellery Queen, Evan Hunter, Frédérique Molay, Fred Vargas, Ian Rankin, Jane Casey, Josephine Tey, K.B. Owen, Karin Fossum, Katherine Howell, Lawrence Treat, Louise Penny, Maj Sjöwall, Martin Edwards, Michael Connelly, Michael Sears, Michael Stanley, Per Wahlöö, Qiu Xiaolong, Stanley Trollip, Stuart Palmer

Well, It’s a Rainy Night in Paris and I’m Sitting by the Seine*

paris-riverseine9There’s something about Paris. Whether it’s the world-class food and wine, the art, the music or the fabled romance of the place, people are often drawn to that city. There’s something almost magical about it for some people. But besides everything else, Paris is a large, modern city. And there’s crime there, just as there is in other places. Let’s take a look at some crime fiction that takes place in Paris and you’ll see what I mean.

Although Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot makes his home in London, he travels to Paris too when it’s needed. In Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), for instance, Poirot is faced with an unusual case. Marie Morisot, a Paris moneylender who does business as Madame Giselle, suddenly dies during a flight from Paris to London. It’s soon shown that the victim was poisoned and Chief Inspector Japp begins to investigate. The only possible suspects in this case are the other passengers, one of whom was Hercule Poirot. In fact, the jury at the coroner’s inquest suspects him of the crime. Poirot works with Japp and with French authorities to find out who the killer is, and part of the trail leads to Paris, where Madame Giselle lived and did business. In fact, Poirot finds several useful clues during his trip there.

Fans of Georges Simenon’s Jules Maigret will know that he is a member of the Direction Régionale de Police Judiciaire de Paris, the criminal investigation division of France’s Police Nationale. Maigret does of course investigate crimes that occur in the French countryside and in other French cities. But he and his wife live in Paris. Fans will know that he’s acquainted with just about every café and bar in the city, as that’s where he often does his best observation and deduction.

Also set in Paris are many of Fred Vargas’ Commissare Adamsberg novels. Adamsberg, also of the Police Nationale, works with a disparate group of people whom others might consider eccentric, even misfits. But he and his team actually form a very effective group of detectives. These novels have an almost surreal feel about them, but they also offer a picture of what it’s like to live and work in Paris. Adamsberg is an unusual sort of detective. He doesn’t necessarily follow obvious clues or go after obvious suspects. He also solves cases and settles problems in sometimes-unorthodox ways, to the occasional chagrin of his team members. But he and his team (including of course, Snowball the office cat) get there in the end.

Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer offers, among other things, an interesting look at the way Paris has become increasingly diverse in the last decades. Catherine Monsigny is a newly-minted attorney who volunteers for a group that works with undocumented immigrants who get into legal trouble. She has a full-time paid position too, but this volunteering gives her valuable experience. It’s also the way she learns of the case of Myriam Villetreix, an immigrant from Gabon who’s been accused of poisoning her wealthy husband Gaston. With support from her employer and mentor, Monsigny takes this case and prepares to defend Myriam. It turns out that this case will force Monsigny to confront a terrible incident from her own past. As a three-year-old, she witnessed her mother’s murder, which took place not far from where the Villetreix case is unfolding. The two cases aren’t, strictly speaking, related. But Monsigny finds the answers to both sets of questions. And in this novel, we get a solid sense of Paris as well as an interesting look at French jurisprudence.

We also get a look at modern-day Paris in Frédérique Molay’s The 7th Woman. This novel features Chief Nico Sirsky, head of the Paris CID La Crim’, and his team. The body of Marie-Hélène Jory is found in her Paris home. It’s not a typical robbery-with-murder sort of killing, and although the murder is brutal, there’s not much to go on in terms of evidence. Then there’s another murder. The second victim is Chloé Bartes, who is murdered in the same brutal way as the first victim. This time, the killer has left a message: seven days, seven women. Now the team sees that the murderer has a specific plan and that they’ll have to act fast if they’re to prevent more killings. Besides the murder plot itself, Molay also gives readers a look at the way a Paris criminal investigation of this magnitude is carried out, and how different agencies (police, crime scene experts, psychologists, the courts, etc.) work together.

There are also plenty of novels in which the protagonist travels to Paris, even if the main investigation takes place elsewhere. For instance, in Teresa Solana’s A Not So Perfect Crime, Barcelona private investigators (and brothers) Eduard and Josep ‘Borja’ Martínez are hired by powerful politician Lluís Font. He believes that his wife Lídia is having an affair, and he wants the brothers to find out if he is right. A week of following her produces no results, and the Martínez brothers are inclined to report to their client that he’s wrong about his wife. Then one evening they do get a possible lead that she may be hiding something, quite possibly an affair. Before they can follow up on that lead though, Lídia is poisoned. Her husband becomes the obvious suspect even though he is wealthy and powerful. So he insists that the Martínez brothers stay in his employ and find out who killed his wife. Although they’ve never investigated a murder before, the brothers agree. One key to this mystery is a painting that was done of Lídia by an artist who may in fact be her mysterious lover, if there was one. To track down the artist, the brothers travel to Paris. At first, the city doesn’t impress Eduard very much. It seems to have changed a lot since he was there many years earlier, and no longer has the appeal for him that it did. But Paris works magic on him as it does on a lot of people, and by the end of that short trip there, Eduard remembers what he loved so much about it. And in the end, the Martínez brothers find out who killed Lídia Font and why.

And that’s Paris for you. It’s got its share of crime, nasty history and secrets. But it’s got an irresistible appeal, delicious food and wine, and wonderful art and music. Little wonder so many stories and series are set there. I’ve only mentioned a very few. Your turn.

 

ps  Thanks to A Paris Guide for the lovely ‘photo!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Somewhere Along the Line.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Frédérique Molay, Fred Vargas, Georges Simenon, Sylvie Granotier, Teresa Solana

But I Got Cat Class and I Got Cat Style*

zenasstedaureliocolumn1Ciao, my Bellas!

I am Aurelio Zen, Assistant Editor at It’s a Crime! (Or a Mystery…). Now, before I go any further, let me encourage you to pay a visit to my home blog, where She Who (thinks she) is in Charge and I always provide top-quality crime fiction information and reviews.

I’m here today on special assignment because Margot Kinberg is not intelligent enough to be worthy of being owned by a cat. Therefore there was no choice but to have me come in to discuss the vital role that cats play in crime fiction. You don’t believe me? You must certainly have been listening to a dog lately then. Let me put you right on how very important cats are in the genre.

Let’s start with Agatha Christie’s The Clocks. British Intelligence operative Colin Lamb happens to be in the town of Crowdean on his own business one afternoon when he’s quite literally run into by Sheila Webb. She’s a secretary who was sent to a house in the same neighbourhood for what she thought was a typing job. What she’s found instead is the body of an unknown man. Lamb summons the police in the form of Inspector Richard Hardcastle, and the hunt for the killer is on. There are some odd aspects of this murder, so Lamb thinks the case may be of interest to his father’s friend Hercule Poirot. It turns out he’s right and Poirot guides the investigation. Next door to the house where the body was found lives Mrs. Hemming, a widow who is servant to a houseful of cats. She is, quite naturally, far more interested in her masters’ well-being than she is in a murder, but she says something that proves to be very useful to the investigation.

Robert Crais’ PI sleuth Elvis Cole is owned by a cat. The cat, of course, chooses to remain more or less feral, but Cole sees that it’s fed and cared for and he is, in his own way, comforted by the cat’s presence. Interestingly enough, the only human who seems intelligent enough to interact properly with Cole’s cat is his partner Joe Pike. Pike is a tough guy with an interest in weapons and a background that includes military duty. He’s really not intimidated by anyone. But he also knows the proper way to relate to us feline rulers. So Cole’s cat gets along with him.

Åsa Larsson’s series includes police detective Sven-Erik Stålnacke, who is owned for a time by a cat he calls Manne. That relationship doesn’t last, but in The Black Path, he meets a widow named Airi Bylund who is very much a cat person. In that novel, Stålnacke and his partner Anna-Maria Mella are investigating the murder of Inna Wattrang, Head of Information for Kellis Mining. The trail leads to some very nasty business at the top of the corporate ladder, to say nothing of some international intrigue. But none of that matters. What does matter is that Stålnacke and Bylund are able to bond because of – that’s right – cats. Before cats, Stålnacke lives by himself, lonelier than he cares to admit. After cats? Of course – a relationship. That’s feline power.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman is owned by three cats. One, Horatio, shares her home and later, does his share of monopolising her lover Daniel Cohen. Chapman knows the real truth about cats: if they approve of a person, that person is probably worthy. Chapman also keeps two Rodent Control Officers Heckle and Jekyll. They ensure that mice and rats pose no threat to Chapman’s bakery and despite concerns from Health Department officials, the fact is, the Mouse Police are a much safer and more environmentally-friendly deterrent to such vermin than are traps or poison. And the Mouse Police do their jobs well. When their shift ends early in the morning, Chapman feeds them and then lets them out to get dessert from the nearby restaurant. It all works very well for them.

Fans of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series will know that she is owned by Flint. Now, Flint doesn’t stoop so low as to actually act like a human and solve mysteries. But Flint provides good company for Galloway and her daughter Kate. And to be honest, Galloway prefers Flint to most humans. As she herself puts it at the end of A Dying Fall,

 

‘My life is just me and Kate and Flint.’

 

Wise woman.

One of the most interesting crime-fictional cats is without a doubt Snowball, who runs Commissaire Adamsberg’s office in Fred Vargas’ series. Snowball’s favourite human among those on Adamsberg’s team is Violette Retancourt, and that makes sense. Retancourt is gifted with animals and she and Snowball have an understanding. In This Night’s Foul Work, the team is faced with some odd cases that could be connected. Two drug dealers have been found with their throats cut, and it looks like it could be the work of serial killer Claire Langevin, who’s recently escaped from custody. These murders could also be related to the bizarre killings of some Normandy stags. In the midst of all of this, Retancourt goes missing. At first, only Snowball seems aware of her absence (humans!!). But gradually some of the other members of the team notice that she’s gone. Finally, when she doesn’t return, the decision is taken to let Snowball track her. It turns out to be the right decision, as Snowball is able to lead the team to Retancourt. We also find out why she disappeared and how that is related to the other plot threads in the novel. Snowball soon puts paid to all of the nasty remarks made about cats’ lack of intelligence. I mean, really!

There are also several series such as Lorna Barrett’s Booktown series and Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series where the human sleuths are accompanied by feline partners. In the Booktown series, which takes place in Stoneham, Massachusetts, Tricia Miles owns Haven’t Got a Clue, a bookshop specialising in crime fiction and mystery. In turn, Miles is owned by her feline overseer Miss Marple. That’s almost as good a name for a cat as mine. And fans of the Cat Who… series will know that in those novels, journalist Jim ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran is owned by Koko and Yum Yum, two elegant seal-point Siamese.  And of course there’s Carol Nelson Douglas’ Midnight Louie series. Fans of those novels will know that Midnight Louie owns PR freelancer Temple Barr.

There are other series and novels too of course that feature fearless felines. How could they not? Which ones do you like best?

Now, then, time for me to return to She Who (thinks she) is in Charge. What would she do without me? Ciao!

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Stray Cats’ Stray Cat Strut.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Carole Nelson Douglas, Elly Griffiths, Fred Vargas, Kerry Greenwood, Lilian Jackson Braun, Lorna Barrett, Robert Crais

Well, I Was Born in a Small Town*

SmallTownI don’t usually stay on the same topic over two days on this blog, but an interesting comment exchange has got me thinking even more about how small towns are portrayed in crime fiction. There are of course plenty of creepy small towns and villages in the genre. But there are also many very pleasant small towns. Yes, murders happen there or affect the people there, but the towns themselves are good places to live, with good people. So let’s turn the topic on its head today and look at some of the nicer small towns in crime fiction.

There’s an interesting little town Market Basing depicted in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client). Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings visit Market Basing when Poirot receives a letter from Emily Arundell, asking for his assistance in a delicate matter. She doesn’t specify the problem, and by the time Poirot and Hastings get to Market Basing, she has already died of what seems to be liver failure. It turns out that she was poisoned though, and Poirot and Hastings begin to investigate. There are several suspects, too, since Emily Arundell was a wealthy woman with some financially desperate family members. The village of Market Basing is a sleepy sort of place with its share of eccentric characters. For instance, there’s Miss Caroline Peabody, an outspoken and witty elderly lady who provides Poirot and Hastings with some valuable information. And there are sisters Julia and Isabel Tripp, who have all sorts of eccentricities. But none of the local characters is portrayed as sinister, nor is the village depicted as a group of people all hiding an awful secret. It’s just not an eerie place.

Neither is Trafalgar, British Columbia, home to Vicki Delany’s Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith. It’s got appeal as a skiing and winter holiday destination (Check out Winter of Secrets for more on that) and as a place to enjoy the area’s natural beauty (In the Shadow of the Glacier and Valley of the Lost have more about that). But it’s a quiet, peaceful small town. Smith was actually born and raised in Trafalgar, and everyone there knows her. In fact that sometimes makes it a little awkward for her when she’s trying to do her job. But the people of Trafalgar are basically good people. They don’t always agree on things of course, and sometimes that leads to real dissent. But at the heart of it, Trafalgar is a good place to live and work, and its residents do generally care about one another.

That’s also true of Crooked Lake, Saskatchewan, the home of Nelson Brunanski’s John ‘Bart’ Bartowski. Everyone knows everyone in Crooked Lake, and people work together and help one another. It’s that sort of town. So in the first Bart Bartowswki novel Crooked Lake, it’s a real shock to the community when Harvey Kristoff, who’s on the Board of Directors of the Crooked Lake Regional Park and Golf Course, is killed. The chief suspect is former Head Greenskeeper Nick Taylor, who’s recently been terminated. Taylor is understandably furious and upset at losing his job, but he claims he didn’t kill Kristoff. Bart wants to believe his friend, so when Taylor asks him to clear his name, Bart agrees. As he talks to people and follows up on leads, we see what the town of Crooked Lake is like. People know one another and care about each other. The town itself is a safe, good place to live and that actually adds to the distress everyone feels at the murder and at what happens as Bart asks questions. This is definitely not one of those ‘sinister towns with a smiling façade.’

Louise Penny fans will know that Three Pines, a small Québec town, is also a good place to live. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec learns that in Still Life. He and his team go to Three Pines when beloved former schoolteacher Jane Neal is found dead, apparently from a tragic hunting accident. The evidence soon suggests that she was murdered though, and Gamache and the team set up an investigation. As they look into the victim’s history and relations with others in the town, we see what a pleasant community Three Pines is. The residents really do care about each other. They all have flaws and histories, and they’re hardly perfect people. But they’re also not sinister people who are hiding awful, awful secrets. And I certainly wouldn’t mind eating at the bistro. :-)

Rhys Bowen’s Constable Evan Evans lives and works in the Welsh village of Llanfair. He’s attached to the people of Llanfair and the feeling is mutual. It’s a small, quiet place where people really do care about one another. That’s part of the trouble in Evanly Bodies, when Evans is named to a new Major Incident response team that’s to be ‘on call’ in case of an emergency. The team is called into action to investigate a series of shootings, and Evans is hard at work on that case. But trouble is brewing at home. The Khan family has recently arrived from Pakistan and set up shop in Llanfair. Their sixteen-year-old daughter Jamila strikes up a few new friendships, including one with Evans’ wife Bronwen. She has adapted well to the local ways and wants to stay in Wales, but her parents’ plan is to send her back to Pakistan to get married. When Jamila disappears, her family blames the locals, and in particular Bronwen Evans. In order to help Jamila if he can, Evans returns to Llanfair and looks into the girl’s disappearance. As he does so, we can see how much he values the village and the people who live there. And as the truth comes out, we see that Llanfair is really a good place to live and work, and not at all a sinister ‘evil in the heartland’ kind of place.

You could say the same thing about Tumdrum, Ireland, which we get to know in Ian Sansom’s Mobile Library series. When librarian Israel Armstrong first arrives in Tumdrum in The Case of the Missing Books, he’s not at all prepared for the village and its distinctive ways. In fact at first, he doesn’t like the place at all. And when he discovers that the fifteen thousand books he’s supposed to have charge of have been stolen, matters only get worse. But as Armstrong investigates, he also gets to know Tumdrum better. He finds that it’s actually a rock-solid village with people who may be eccentric but are actually good neighbours.

And then there’s M.C. Beaton’s Lochdubh, a small Highlands town in the police care of Constable Hamish Macbeth. Macbeth is quite fond of his peaceful life; in fact he’d rather be fishing than detecting. The town itself is peaceful and quiet, and it’s easy to see that it’s basically a good place to live. Macbeth cares about the people of Lochdubh, so when the need arises, he turns out to be a shrewd, skilled detective. You can see the way the residents of the village feel about each other in Death of a Bore. In that novel, well-known screenwriter John Heppel moves to the Lochdubh area and announces a series of writing classes. Several of the local residents are writers with aspirations, so they’re eager to sign up. At the first class session though, Heppel denigrates the students and their work. Everyone’s upset and dismayed and of course, Macbeth hears about it. He pays Heppel a friendly visit and suggests that he be more supportive of the members of the class. Heppel won’t listen though and the second class goes, if possible, worse than the first. Now there’s real anger against Heppel and Macbeth can see why. When Heppel is murdered, Macbeth has the thankless job of finding out who hated Heppel enough to kill him. It’s not easy, since he feels a real connection to Lochdubh and its people.

Fans of Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series and of Georges Simenon’s Jules Maigret series will know that those two detectives often spend time in quiet, small villages and towns. And those places are not at all sinister.

That’s the thing about small towns. A lot of them are genuinely friendly places with good people. Thanks to Bill Selnes at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan and to Marina Sofia at Finding Time to Write for reminding me of that. Now, may I suggest you do yourself a favour and go visit their excellent blogs. Both well worth a prominent place on your blog roll.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Mellencamp’s Small Town.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Fred Vargas, Georges Simenon, Ian Sansom, Louise Penny, M.C. Beaton, Nelson Brunanski, Rhys Bowen, Vicki Delany

In The Spotlight: Fred Vargas’ The Chalk Circle Man

SpotlightHello, All,

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

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Filed under Fred Vargas, The Chalk Circle Man