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The Parisian chalk circles

Fred Vargas's new sleuth in his latest literary detectives, Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, falls firmly into the downright eccentric category.
Fred Vargas's detective, Jean Baptiste Adamsbeg, is posted to Paris's 5th arrondissement.
Fred Vargas's detective, Jean Baptiste Adamsbeg, is posted to Paris's 5th arrondissement.

The Chalk Circle Man Fred Vargas Harvill Secker Dh68 Literary detectives tend to belong to one of two categories: the glamorously hardboiled and the downright eccentric. Fred Vargas's new sleuth, Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, falls firmly into the latter category, though he is surrounded by such outlandish fellow characters that it's easy to forget his foibles. Born and bred in the Pyrenees, Adamsberg has never been on time for an appointment in his life. As a child, he couldn't see the point of "book learning", but when he joins the police force as a young man, he excels despite himself, displaying an almost uncanny knack for cracking the toughest murder cases. At the age of 45, he is posted to Paris as commissaire of the 5th Arrondissement's police headquarters.

His colleagues are wary of their new boss, and it doesn't help when Adamsberg tries to explain his methodology, such as it is. He can sense cruelty in people, he tells his favourite inspector, a man named Danglard - he can feel it oozing out of their pores. That sixth sense is what helps him solve his first Parisian murder within the novel's opening two chapters, all the while appearing to do nothing more than doodle at his desk and stroll aimlessly through the streets of his new home.

But the case that has piqued Adamsberg's curiosity isn't even a case yet. Over a period of some weeks, Paris has become gripped by a strange nocturnal phenomenon. Circles drawn in blue chalk have been appearing around random objects found on the city's pavements. A spectacles lens, an "I love Elvis" badge and a pigeon's claw are just some of the 60 items that have so far been encircled. Around the edge of each, the riddling words "Victor, woe's in store, what are you out here for?" are lettered in immaculate Copperplate.

Vargas has fun imagining the pretentious media coverage that the chalk circles elicit. Cocktail parties buzz with talk of the "revisited object", and a renowned psychiatrist begins theorising on the compulsions driving the "chalk circle man". Adamsberg's interest is quickened by the conviction that one day, the thing in the middle of the circle will get bigger. Sure enough, a few weeks later the chalk-ringed body of a woman is found.

As the plot thickens, Vargas (the pseudonym of the historian and archaelogist Frederique Audoin-Rouzeau) piles on the coincidences, each of which seems perfectly plausible in the odd, immersive world she has created. Her Paris is a city peopled by lonely wanderers like Mathilde, a celebrated oceanographer who follows strangers, observing and taking notes, striving to learn about her fellow human beings in the only way she knows how.

Other characters include a woman who collects photographs of clouds that look like human profiles, a handsome blind man with a vicious streak and an old lady still looking for love, despite having already responded to 2,354 personal ads. Even Danglard doubles as the alcoholic single father of two sets of twins. A questing melancholy cuts through the whimsy, and the occasional awkwardness in Sian Reynolds's otherwise impressive translation seems almost intentional, flavouring the text with the original French. Only Adamsberg's thwarted love interest seems perhaps a twist too far. Meanwhile, that one body becomes three.

Danglard sketches caricatures in idle moments, but he knows better than to attempt Adamsberg's likeness. "It was as if 60 faces had been mingled to make one", the inspector reflects. Similarly, you could probably pick out at least 60 notable literary gumshoes who have influenced Fred Vargas and her protagonist. But that makes him no less unique.

Updated: March 6, 2009 04:00 AM



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