Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Chalk Circle Man: A mystery by Fred Vargas

Fred Vargas' novels amble far from the investigations that are the staple of the traditional police procedural. At the same time, few crime stories are as apt to leave a reader wondering so ardently whodunnit.

That's because Vargas' near-constant emphasis on her characters' quirks communicates that old French message that everyone has his reasons. Here, Vargas rather skillfully manipulates the reader (OK, she manipulated me) into believing at various times that any of four characters could be the killer, for the simple reason that each of the four has a reason or character trait or behavioral quirk that makes him or her a plausible suspect.

As in Vargas' Have Mercy on Us All, a series of odd messages triggers the mystery. There the messages were odd notes slipped into a modern-day town crier's news bulletins. Here they are visual: a series of mysterious chalk circles that appear in several Paris neighborhoods, each circle enclosing some odd object. Then, one night, a dead body, throat slashed, is found in one of the circles.

The very oddity of the circles lets the intuitive commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg and the analytical lieutenant Adrien Danglard consider any number of possible theories. I'll let you read the book to find out what Vargas makes of theories.

For The Chalk Circle Man, Vargas' English-language publishers went back to the first Adamsberg mystery after earlier having issued books two, four, six and seven (the eight books include six novels, one graphic novel and a collection of novellas.) The reader of the books translated earlier will here learn the secret of Danglard's fifth child (I don't remember the story being told in the later books), and there are some delightful scenes of the single father Danglard and the children he loves. If I recall correctly, The Chalk Circle Man also offers more, and maybe even slightly different, physical description of Adamsberg.

For the most part, though, readers of Vargas in English may be reassured to know that Adamsberg has been Adamsberg from the start: intuitive, occasionally abstracted, infuriatingly prone to appear relaxed when Danglard is anything but, and entranced, upset and always worried by the mesmerizing Camille.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

Labels: ,

14 Comments:

Blogger Kerrie said...

Good review Peter. You hit a few nails right on the head. I think Adamsberg changes a bit as the series develops but maybe he just develops

June 10, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

The mystery discussion group that I belong to has selected Vargas' _Have Mercy on Us All_ as this month's book. Is this the first book in the series?

June 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Kerrie. Now that I've read and reviewed the book, I can read other reviews of it. This is yet another of those odd instances in which we English-readers get to read the first in a series after many of us already know the main characters well. Who knows how that colors our judgment?

Perhaps I could a post about differences between this novel and the later books, but I think that apart from the small differences I mentioned, Adamsberg's character remains consistent. He may get a bit more dramatically bent out of shape over Camille in this one, but nothing to shock or disconcert a reader of the other books.

June 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Have Mercy On Us All is the third Adamsberg novel bit the first to be translated into English. You can find the books listed in order of original publication, accompanied by dates of publication in English, here.

June 10, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

I see that the first one is _Chalk Circle Man_. According to the newsletter I get from the local mystery bookstore, the translation is due in July.

June 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The Chalk Circle Man was the first of the Adamsberg novels to be written and published in the original French, the fifth to be translated into English. I read and wrote about a review copy of the Penguin paperback edition, which is about to be released in the U.S.

I expect that its release in English is a sign of publishers' confidence in Vargas. What appears to be the case with crime writers from other countries is that English-language publishers will first select the books they think have the best potential to sell well. Then, if the sales figures are good, they may go back and publish earlier books. Thus, for example, Hakan Nesser's newly released Women With Birthmark is actually the first book in his series about Inspector Van Veeteren.

I can think of one case in which an English reader might be better off reading the novels in their original order of publication rather than the English-language order: Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole books.

June 10, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

I'm looking forward to the Nesser one. I've read several others by him and thought they were very good.

June 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've read the Nesser novels previously translated and enjoyed their deadpan humor. The latest is somewhere near the top of a pretty long to-read list right about now.

June 11, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

Nesser is right behind Pattison's latest: _The Lord of Death_, which is supposed to come out this month.

June 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, I have an extra review copy of The Lord of Death, if you'd like it.

June 11, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

I'd love it.

June 12, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

If you send a postal address to detectivesbeyondborders (at) earthlink (dot) net, I'll put the book in the mail this weekend or early next week.

June 12, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

Done. You should have my address now. And, again, thanks much.

June 12, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have it. Thanks.

June 12, 2009  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home