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


Filed under Fred Vargas, The Chalk Circle Man

25 responses to “In The Spotlight: Fred Vargas’ The Chalk Circle Man

  1. I have read a couple of Vargas books but not this one – you’ve reminded me of how much I love the Paris setting, and that I should read more.

  2. Sounds great and as I have yet to try her work, this must be the place to start – thanks again Margot!

  3. Vargas has been on my wishlist for a while, but just never seem to have got round to her – a timely reminder! Thanks as always for an interesting spotlight. 🙂

    • FictionFan – I appreciate the kind words. 🙂 – And I know all too well what you mean. I’ve a list of authors like that myself. I do recommend Vargas when you get the opportunity.

  4. This sounds just my cup of tea Margot and I’m going to put it on my TBR list. Thank you.

  5. Col

    I haven’t yet dipped my toes into Vargas’ books – maybe next year, or the one after!

  6. One of my favourite authors – I just feel I know Adamsberg and his team so well, and there is a great combination of humour, quirkiness and real menace in her books. I’ve read most of her works in French and I was wondering if some of the more sinister aspects of her work get lost in translation (for instance, The Ghost Riders of Ordebec I read in English and it seemed a little cosier than some of the others, but maybe that is what the original was like too).

    • Marina Sofia – Oh, that’s an interesting question! The menace does come through (I think) in The Chalk Circle Man but perhaps it does so even more in the original French (I read it in English).
      As to the series, I agree that it’s terrific. There really is an effective blend of quirkiness and humour with the suspense of the actually mystery plot. That’s not easy to do well, but Vargas does it.

  7. Only read one book but not this one. Need to revisit.

  8. kathy d.

    This was a zany book in some respects, but yet the solution is rather brilliant, as in many of Fred Vargas’ books. This series is very well worth reading; it’s imaginative and goes where no mystery writer has gone before. They’re often told with French myths and folklore as a backdrop, but Adamsberg always pursues investigations, asks questions, looks at evidence, at the same time getting a feel for the people involved.
    Very entertaining and thought-provoking book.

    • Kathy – You’re right. There is real quirkiness in this novel, and yet the solution makes sense, and Adamsberg finds out the truth in a very believable way. That’s one of the things that sets this series apart. And I really do like both the setting and the plotting.

  9. Lovely review. Vargas is my absolute favourite writer and I can’t wait each year for her new translations. Adamsberg is a truly wonderful creation.

    • Sarah – Thank you – so glad you enjoyed the post. And isn’t Adamsberg a great character? I really like the whole cast of characters in the series, and Vargas does such a wonderful job doesn’t she of drawing them. And then of course there’s the setting and plots – all tied together so well.

  10. I’m with Sergio on this one. New to me, but your review has me wanting to start reading the book right away. Thank you.

    • Richard – Thanks for the kind words. I think Vargas is extremely talented and I really do like this series, so I’m biased. But still… If you do get the chance to read this, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  11. I did not like this book by Vargas, but liked the 2nd one a lot. Looking forward to reading more of them.

    • Tracy – Interesting isn’t it how books strike one differently. I’m very glad you got into the series even if it wasn’t with the first. I hope you’ll enjoy the rest of the series if you read it.

  12. Fred Vargas Fan

    I couldn’t disagree with you more about praising this book because it’s “believable” and “credible” or calling Vargas’ Paris everyday or that Adamsberg is down-to-earth. Kathy is right when she calls it “zany.” You are underplaying the oddness of Vargas’ world in a way that does her a huge disservice. Her outré world view is the reason that she stands out from all the rest of the writers doing this kind of cop novel. The only reason I read this series is because Vargas’ world is NOT everyday. It’s strange and weird and extremely odd. Legends and folklore and superstition play a huge part in the plots and have great significance to the “real” world that usually discounts such fanciful stuff. The solution to this crime in CHALK CIRCLE MAN is utterly ridiculous, but you call it credible! I love Vargas for her chutzpah and her love of the absurd. Usually her plots are so intricate that I can’t ever figure out where she’s going with them. The ending of CHALK CIRLCE MAN was a delightful surprise that made me laugh out loud. Ironically, her most recent book, THE GHOSTS OF ORDEBEC, was the only one in which I figured out the solution and only because amid all the superstition and bizarre legends she chose to make that story a lot more grounded than her earlier books when she really went wild with her ideas. CHALK CIRCLE MAN is the first in the series and it wasn’t translated into English until midway through her career when she was a proven seller primarily because the story is so thoroughly weird. But from this review a new reader would never know that nor would they understand one of the most interesting aspects of Vargas’ books that make them so completely different form the large number of ho-hum pedestrian and utterly unimaginative crime novels out there.

    • FVFan – Thanks very much for your thoughts on this novel and on the series. No doubt about it; Vargas is a master of making the almost surreal work, so that the reader is drawn in.

  13. Pingback: Review; The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas | The Game's Afoot

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