The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas

The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas, translated by Sian Reynolds

Penguin, 2009

Originally published as L’Homme aux cercles bleu, 1996

Source: library copy

The Chalk Circle Man does not begin with a dead body nor any crime being committed.  The opening chapter introduces an older woman who meets a younger blind man in a cafe in Paris, and the subsequent chapter introduces Commissaire Adamsberg, newly appointed to a post in Paris.  As the story develops, Vargas spends lots of her time on the characters as they become involved in the mystery of a series of blue chalk circles that appear on Paris sidewalks late at night.  After finding an assortment of object in the chalk circles, the police eventually find a dead body.

Vargas does not follow a standard police procedural format in this book.  In fact, one of Adamsberg’s first conversations with his detective Danglard is his justification of operating on hunches and letting facts wash over him as opposed to Danglard’s love of process.  The Chalk Circle Man is the rare first book in a police procedural series that takes its time showing us its main character’s investigative process from the inside, however circuitous that process appears to his colleagues.  Also rare is the time Vargas spends setting up the relationship between Danglard and Adamsberg.

Otherwise, the story progresses with a number of conversations with an assortment of intelligent, slightly eccentric people who aid the investigation:  a philosopher and an oceanographer among them.  The actual solving of the mystery happens quite quickly, with a few twists in the last section of the book, and, I’m happy to say, without a violent showdown between the police and the suspect at the end.

All in all, I was happily surprised by the pacing and characters in this book, and I look forward to reading more in the series.

For other reviews, see Shelf Love, Mysteries in Paradise, and Petrona.

9 thoughts on “The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas

  1. Rebecca – A fine review, for which thanks. You’re quite right that Vargas doesn’t follow standard police procedural style in her novels. Perhaps that’s part of her appeal; it’s innovative. I like the interactions among the police on Adamsberg’s team, too, and I hope you’ll enjoy this series as it evolves.

  2. Adamsberg is definitely an odd duck, which makes for an interesting story. I look forward to reading more, but I don’t feel the need to jump into the next book immediately.

  3. Is this your first Vargas book? I absolutely love her writing and they can’t translate her books fast enough for me, Adamsberg is one of my favourite detectives.

  4. I have to admit that I am not the biggest fan of Vargas, though I’ve quite enjoyed her books, particularly The Three Evangelists. They are too quirky for me, when it comes down to it. I have read this one, out of order of course as they were not translated in order – but it is the best one to start with as it is the first Adamsberg book. I wish I had read them in order as I might have enjoyed them more, as you do have to know the characters’ idiosyncracies to fully appreciate the academic “playing” that the author indulges in.

    • I like the quirkiness for now, especially as a break from other books I’ve read in the last few months. I’m glad I tried this series because I’d never heard of Vargas before checking out International Dagger shortlists from the past few years. American marketing of translated books is pretty minimal.

      • One US translation that I enjoyed is Misterioso by Arne Dahl (Sweden). It came out in the US last year so may be cheap by now 😉 It gets a UK publication (and a stupid re-title to The Blinded Man) soon.

  5. I love Fred Vargas’ books and Adamsbeg, Danglard and Retancourt. Her writing is very quirky and creative. I think she is brilliant. Her career as a medieval historian and archaelogist are put to good use in some of her books.
    Vargas’ creativity is stellar. At no time will she be accused of writing a hackneyed or formulaic books. Wherever Vargas wants me to go as a reader, I will go willingly, on whatever journey.
    I’ve read all of the books in this series that have been translated into English. I also read The Three Evangelists and liked it much; wish the rest in that series was translated.
    Even in An Uncertain Place, her latest book, where there are some startling plot developments, Adamsberg uses his powers of logic and deduction to solve the crimes.

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