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Fred Vargas – The Chalk-Circle Man

November 23, 2011

144. The Chalk-Circle Man by Fred Vargas (1996; English translation 2009 by Siân Reynolds)
Commissaire Adamsberg Mysteries, Book 1

Length: 248 pages
Genre: Mystery

Started: 04 November 2011
Finished: 06 November 2011

Where did it come from? Bookmooch.
Why do I have it? This Unshelved Book Club comic.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 06 February 2010.

Paris is famous
for street drawings, but most don’t
contain a body.

Summary: Detective Commissaire Adamsberg has just been appointed as chief of the 5th Arrondissement of the Paris police, and his colleagues are still getting over the unorthodox and enigmatic – yet frequently brilliant – way that he approaches solving crime. The talk of the town has been the The Chalk-Circle Man, as the press has dubbed him; throughout Paris, mysterious blue chalk circles have been appearing overnight, each one containing some random object: a beer can, a cigarette butt, a doll’s head. Most people dismiss the mysterious circles as some harmless form of street art, but Adamsberg suspects there’s something darker going on… and when a chalk circle appears one morning with a woman’s body inside it, he is horribly proven right. Now he may be the only one who can deduce the identity of the chalk-circle man, and keep him from striking again.

Review: Mysteries are not typically my forte; I read them now and again, particularly when they’re of the historical variety, and certainly watch my fair share of police procedural shows, but I wouldn’t call myself a particular fan of the genre. Still, I’m always willing to branch out, and I thought the premise of The Chalk Circle Man sounded interesting, so I decided to go for it.

And while the premise was indeed fantastic, it didn’t really play out in a way that lived up to its promise. The problem with having a lead detective that solves crimes by his own strange ruminations is that it means the bulk of the police work is not happening “on screen”, making it hard for the audience to follow along and come to conclusions of their own. There were frequent inductive leaps in the narrative, which all the characters seemed to accept, and which did make sense after the fact, but which often left me wondering “wait, where did that come from?” I was also a little disappointed that the mystery, and the solution thereto, didn’t focus more on the pattern of the circles and the meaning of the objects they contained – which was the part of the premise that most drew me to the book in the first place.

The writing style was also not what I was expecting from a police mystery. It was sort of distant and philosophical and not always particularly straightforward, which was amplified by the fact that the characters seemed to spend a lot more time thinking about things than actually doing any police work. I also found the dialogue kind of stilted and formal, not at all the way people actually talk. I can’t say whether any of this is just Vargas’s style, or if something got lost in the translation to English (or whether French people actually do talk like that?), but it kept me from really being able to get a bead on the characters, and from being able to get fully absorbed in the story.

This is Vargas’s first book (although not the first translated to English), and I’ve heard that her later books are better. But this one just didn’t work for me the way I’d hoped it might, although whether it’s first-novel-syndrome, cultural differences, or incompatibility of styles, I can’t say. 3 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Fans of European mysteries might have better luck with it than I did, but be aware going in that it doesn’t read like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or In the Woods, and it doesn’t have the tone of what I would expect a “typical” detective mystery to be.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: A Bookworm’s World, Chasing Bawa, Piling on the Books
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Mathilde took out her diary and wrote: ‘The Man sitting next to me has got one hell of a nerve.’

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 25, 2011 4:41 pm

    I had high hopes for this one, so I’m disappointed to see you didn’t like it more.

    • December 2, 2011 10:31 am

      BermudaOnion – I think my reaction was completely personal – the prose style didn’t really work for me, for one – so I could easily see other people really enjoying it. I hope that if you give it a try, you’re one of them!

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