As an aficionado of crime novels and police whodunits, I checked out The Chalk Circle Man in hope of finding another author of the genre to add to my collection. Within a chapter or two, I wasn’t quite sure what I had in my hands. Author Vargas is a quintessentially French writer whose characters spend a great deal of time pondering the existential nature of life and their role in it. Along the way, a fascinating murder mystery gets slowly—and I mean slowly—unraveled by the depressingly hopeless but nonetheless irresistible Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg.
Someone is drawing circles in blue chalk on the streets of Paris, and the contents of those circles transform slowly from bits of debris to slaughtered human beings. Finding the “Chalk Circle Man” and finding the murderer is the plot, but the real mystery lies in unveiling the nature of a rather odd bunch of characters—eccentric oceanographer Mathilde, embittered blind man Charles, lonely-heart Clemence, intellectual detective Danglard, and unfathomable Adamsberg–whose paths cross and re-cross as the story unfolds. They all have a mystery at their core, some of which are revealed and some of which remain beyond the reader’s ken when the crime is solved and the novel putters to an end.
I was intrigued enough by the author’s writing style—the Washington Post calls it her “March-hare fecundity”–and by characters both droll and sinister, to check out more of Vargas’ work, but I also felt somewhat depressed at the lack of what I can only call a “pulse” to her story. I couldn’t help feeling like I was swimming underwater, or perhaps seeing through a glass dimly.