Crime Fiction Alphabet: V is for Vargas

This week’s letter in Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet is V.

My choice of book is The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas, translated from the French by Siân Reynolds. This is the first of her Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg novels.

From the back cover:

Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is not like other policemen. He doesn’t search for clues; he ignores obvious suspects and arrests people with cast-iron alibis; he appears permanently distracted. In spite of this his colleagues are forced to admit that he is a born cop.

When strange blue chalk circles start appearing on the pavements of Paris, only Adamsberg takes them – and the increasingly bizarre objects fround within them – seriously. And when the body of a woman with her throat savagely cut is found in one, only Adamsberg realises that other murders will soon follow.

My view:

As soon as I began reading this book I was entertained – the writing is fluent (unlike the translation I read of her later book Seeking Whom He May Devour) and easily conveyed the quirky nature of Vargas’s plot and characters. As the book cover summary describes, Adamsberg just doesn’t fit the usual detective profile – well, he is a loner, so that’s pretty standard, but apart from that he stands out  – an outsider from the Pyrenees, newly appointed to Paris as Commissaire of police headquarters in the 5th arrondissement. His colleagues don’t understand him, especially Inspector Danglard, who likes a drink and isn’t too reliable after about four in the afternoon.

Vargas goes into some detail both about Adamsberg’s history, appearance and characteristics, and about Danglard. Adamsberg is a thinker – but a vague thinker – he works mainly on intuition, whereas Danglard doesn’t trust feelings and gut instincts. He prefers to follow procedure, looking for clues and proof. Adamsberg claims that some people just ooze cruelty:

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. (pages 17-18)

The chalk circle man intrigues Adamsberg and it is his meditation on his character that leads him to solve the mystery – but before that two other murders have taken place. Is the chalk circle man the killer, or is the killer using the circles to his own advantage? And why does he leave a lingering smell of rotten apples?

Adamsberg and Danglard are not the only eccentric characters – the book is full of them, all delightfully different including Mathilde, the marine biologist who prefers fish to people. She lets rooms to Charles, the beautiful blind man with a chip on his shoulder and to Clemence, the old lady who lives on the top floor. Clemence at seventy is still looking for the love of her life. She has an unattractive appearance with a bony face and sharp little teeth like a shrew-mouse and wears far too much make-up. I thought the interactions and conversation between these people was fascinating.

This is a very cleverly constructed and quirky mystery, and I was pleased that I did half guess the solution; I only half-guessed because there is a twist at the end which took me totally by surprise. I’ll certainly look out for more of Fred Vargas’s books to read.

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; First PB Edition edition (4 Feb 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099488973
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099488972
  • Source: Library book
  • My Rating: 4.5/5

6 thoughts on “Crime Fiction Alphabet: V is for Vargas”

  1. For some reason this was the sixth of Fred Vargas’s novels to appear in English. One of them, The Three Evangelists , was published a year before Chalk Circle Man and doesn’t feature Adamsberg, though in all ways, plot, character, setting, it’s absolutely characteristic of her style. Adamsberg’s beloved and lost Camille is actually Mathilde’s daughter.
    It’s so annoying and disappointing when novels are translated and appear out of order!

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  2. It occurred to me while reading this that Adamsberg is similar to R. D. Wingfield’s Inspector Frost in that they don’t work in a normal way (ignore the usual suspects, follow up on the impossible suspects) and yet they solve the cases and get the work done. I did not enjoy this book as much as you and others did, but I have two more in the series and am going back to give them a try.

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  3. I enjoyed all the Vargas books, but I might nominate Have Mercy on us All and Wash This Blood Clean from my Hand as the two I liked most. Maybe you have one or both of these, Tracy!

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