The New York Times
The Chalk Circle Man (Commissaire Adamsberg Series #1)by Fred Vargas
Fred Vargas 's Commissaire Adamsberg mysteries are a sensation in France, consistently praised for their intelligence, wit, and macabre imagination. This first novel in the series introduces the unorthodox detective/b>
The debut mystery in the internationally bestselling Commissaire Adamsberg series-now available for the first time in the United States
Fred Vargas 's Commissaire Adamsberg mysteries are a sensation in France, consistently praised for their intelligence, wit, and macabre imagination. This first novel in the series introduces the unorthodox detective Commissaire Adamsberg-one of the most engaging characters in contemporary crime fiction.
When blue chalk circles begin to appear on the pavement in neighborhoods around Paris, Adamsberg is alone in thinking that they are far from amusing. As he studies each new circle and the increasingly bizarre objects they contain-empty beer cans, four trombones, a pigeon's foot, a doll's head-he senses the cruelty that lies within whoever is responsible. And when a circle is discovered with decidedly less banal contents-a woman with her throat slashed-Adamsberg knows that this is just the beginning.
The New York Times
Fans of Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, the sleuth who doesn't do deductive reasoning, will welcome the first in Vargas's inspired crime series (This Night's Foul Work; Wash This Blood Clean from My Hand), originally published in France in 1990. Newly transferred from his home in the Pyrenees to Paris, the 45-year-old Adamsberg arrives with a reputation for solving big cases, though his diffident manner doesn't impress his colleague and foil, Adrien Danglard. A solitary man drawing blue chalk circles at night around stray objects in Paris streets manages to create a media sensation, but Adamsberg senses evil behind the act. When the corpse of a woman is found encircled in chalk, he's proven right. Adamsberg's indirect approach, his ability to sense cruelty and to let solutions percolate to the surface make him one of the more intriguing police detectives in a long time. (July)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
In the first of eight novels featuring Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg (last seen in the United States in This Night's Foul Work), the quirky commissaire has just been posted to police headquarters in the fifth arrondissement, where he is already renowned for his uncanny ability to solve murders by making leaps that defy logic. But after instantly solving one murder, he faces a much more complicated case: for four months, someone has been leaving blue chalk circles around found objects on the streets of Paris. While the city's intellectuals argue whether the circles are the work of a cynical con artist or a genuine madman, Adamsberg senses something far more sinister. Then the first of several corpses turn up inside a chalk circle. VERDICT As with other novels in this series, readers should settle in to be unsettled. Delight is found not so much in the details of plot as in the oddities of character. The crime, the suspects, and the commissaire are all pleasantly off-kilter and equally baffling. A definite pick for Francophile mystery buffs who also enjoy Georges Simenon's Maigret series and Pierre Magnan (Death in the Truffle Wood).—Ron Terpening, Univ. of Arizona, Tucson
— Margaret Cannon, The Globe and Mail
"If you haven't cottoned on to Vargas's brilliant Adamsberg detective stories, you're missing a treat."
— Scotland on Sunday
"The Chalk Circle Man showcases Vargas' charms as a crime writer — it's hauntingly written, with intensely drawn characters and a plot that smoulders with psychological suspense."
— The Age
Read an Excerpt
Mathilde took out her diary and wrote: ‘the man sitting next to me has got one hell of a nerve.’
She sipped her beer and glanced once more at the neighbour on her left, a strikingly tall man who had been drumming his fingers on the café table for the past ten minutes.
She made another note in the diary: ‘He sat down too close to me, as if we knew each other, but I’ve never seen him before. No, I’m sure I’ve never seen him before. Not much else to say about him, except that he’s wearing dark glasses. I’m sitting on the terrace outside the Café Saint-Jacques, and I’ve ordered a glass of draught lager. I’m drinking it now. I’m concentrating as hard as I can on the beer. Can’t think of anything better to do.’
Mathilde’s neighbour went on drumming his fingers.
‘Something the matter?’ she asked.
Mathilde had a deep and very husky voice. The man guessed that here was a woman who smoked as much as she could get away with.
‘No, nothing. Why?’ he replied.
‘Just that it’s getting on my nerves, that noise you’re making on the tabletop. Everything’s setting my teeth on edge today.’
Mathilde finished her beer. Tasteless. Typical for a Sunday. Mathilde considered that she suffered more than most from the fairly widespread malaise she called seventh-day blues.
‘You’re about fifty, I’d guess?’ offered the man, without moving away from her.
‘Might be,’ said Mathilde.
She felt annoyed.What business was that of his? Just then, she had noticed that the stream of water from the fountain opposite the café was blowing in the wind and sprinkling drops on the arm of the stone cherub beneath: one of those little moments of eternity. And now here was some character spoiling the only moment of eternity of this particular seventh day.
Besides, people usually thought she looked ten years younger. As she told him.
‘Does it matter?’ asked the man. ‘I can’t guess ages the way other people do. But I imagine you’re rather beautiful, if I’m not mistaken.’
‘Is there something wrong with my face?’ asked Mathilde. ‘You don’t seem very sure about it.’
‘It’s not that. I certainly do imagine you’re beautiful,’ the man replied, ‘but I won’t swear to it.’
‘Please yourself,’ said Mathilde. ‘At any rate, you’re very good-looking, and I’ll swear to that, if it helps.Well, it always does help, doesn’t it? And now I’m going to leave you. I’m too edgy today to sit around talking to people like you.’
‘I’m not feeling so calm, either. I was going to see a flat to rent, but it was already taken. What about you?’
‘I let somebody I wanted to catch up with get away.’
‘No, a woman I was following in the metro. I’d taken lots of notes, and then, suddenly, I lost her. See what I mean?’
‘No, I don’t see at all.’
‘You’re not trying, you mean.’
‘Well, obviously I’m not trying.’
‘You are. You’re very trying.’
‘Yes, I am trying. And on top of that, I’m blind.’
‘Oh, Christ!’ said Mathilde. ‘I’m so sorry.’
The man turned towards her with a rather unkind smile.
‘Why are you sorry?’ he said. ‘It’s not your fault, is it?’
Mathilde told herself that she should just stop talking. But she also knew that she wouldn’t be able to manage that.
‘Whose fault is it, then?’ she asked.
The Beautiful Blind Man, as Mathilde had already named him in her head, reverted to his position, three-quarters turned away.
‘It was a lioness’s fault. I was dissecting it, because I was working on the locomotive system of the larger cats.Why the heck should we care about their locomotive system? Sometimes I would tell myself this is really cutting-edge stuff, other times I thought, oh for God’s sake, lions walk, they crouch, they pounce, and that’s it. Then one day I made a false move with a scalpel . . .’
‘And it squirted in your eyes.’
‘Yes. How did you know?’
‘There was this man once, he built the colonnade of the Louvre, and he was killed like that. A decomposed camel, laid out on a dissecting table. Still, that was a long time ago, and it was a camel. Quite a big difference, really.’
‘Well, rotten flesh is still rotten flesh. The ghastly muck went in my eyes. Everything went black. Couldn’t see a thing. Kaput.’
‘All because of a wretched lioness. I came across a creature like that once. How long ago was this?’
‘Eleven years now. She must be laughing her head off, the lioness, wherever she is. Well, I can laugh, sometimes, these days. Not at the time though. A month later I went back and trashed the lab — I threw bits of rotten tissue everywhere, I wanted it to go in everyone’s eyes. I smashed up the work of the team studying feline locomotion. But of course it gave me no satisfaction at all. In fact, it was a big let-down.’
‘What colour were your eyes?’
‘Black, like swifts, the sickles of the sky.’
‘And now what are they like?’
‘Nobody dares tell me. Black, red and white, I should think. People seem to choke when they see them. I suppose it’s a nasty sight. I just keep my glasses on all the time now.’
‘I’d like to see them,’ said Mathilde, ‘if you really want to know what they look like. Nasty sights don’t bother me.’
‘People say that, then they regret it.’
‘When I was diving one day, I got bitten on the leg by a shark.’
‘OK, I suppose that’s not a pretty sight either.’
‘What do you miss the most from not being able to see?’
‘Your questions are getting on my nerves. We’re not going to spend all day talking about lions and sharks and suchlike beasts, are we?’
‘No, I suppose not.’
‘Well, if you must know, I miss girls. Not very original, is it?’
‘The girls cleared off, did they, after the lioness?’
‘Looks like that. You didn’t say why you were following the woman.’
‘No reason. I follow lots of people, actually. Can’t help it, it’s an addiction.’
‘After the shark bite, did your lover clear off?’
‘He left, and others came along.’
‘You’re an unusual woman.’
‘Why do you say that?’ asked Mathilde.
‘Because of your voice.’
‘What do you hear in people’s voices?’
‘Oh, come on, I’m not going to tell you that! What would I have left, for pity’s sake? You’ve got to let a blind man have some advantages, madame,’ said the man, with a smile.
He stood up to leave. He hadn’t even finished his drink.
‘Wait. What’s your name?’ Mathilde asked.
The man hesitated.
‘Charles Reyer,’ he said.
‘Thank you. My name’s Mathilde.’
The Beautiful Blind Man said that was a rather classy name, that there was a queen called Mathilde who had reigned in England in the twelfth century. Then he walked off, guiding himself with a finger along the wall. Mathilde couldn’t care less about the twelfth century, and she finished the blind man’s drink, with a frown.
For a long time afterwards, for weeks during her excursions along the pavements of Paris, Mathilde looked out for the blind man, out of the corner of her eye. But she didn’t find him. She guessed his age as about thirty-five.
Meet the Author
Fred Vargas is a French medieval historian and archaeologist who has a parallel career as a bestselling crime novelist. She adopted the pseudonym from her twin sister, an artist who works as Jo Vargas—after Ava Gardner’s character in The Barefoot Contessa. She has published ten mysteries, five of which feature Commissaire Adamsberg. Her detective fiction is published in 32 languages.
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I confess that a good portion of my reading acquisitions are use-tested by library patrons who turn them back for other patrons to buy and read. This was my luck to discover Fred Vargas, a fine scientific mind who writes popular crime stories focused on Commissaire Adamsberg. A large percentage of a crime/mystery story’s success lies in characterization, and to a lesser extent plot and setting. The Commissaire will remind you of Lt. Columbo in acting tangentally to the crime; his inspector Danglard is the driving character working to ferret out the murderer. The set-up — in this case, innocuous chalk drawings that lead to one encircling a woman whose throat has been slashed — is the foundation from which the writer builds her monument. Now forget plot, unless you would characterize Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea as a story about fishing. Plot is at best a skeleton on which to drape a body. It pays to distinguish your character from Bogart’s “Sam Spade.” And Vargas does this superlatively. Unfortunately, the tough P.I. is a trope for many crime stories. The successful protag in this crime/mystery story is a complicated, neurotic, questioning hero who unravels the matryoska nesting dolls of this murderer. I haven’t copy-held the text against the original French, but the translation by Sîan Reynolds retains all the nuances of fully-rounded characters. If there are clichés, put them down to the characters’ speech. Mme. Vargas, I lift my glass to salute your work.
This is a great series. Reynolds is the better of the two translators.