Karo’s #CBR4 Review #1: The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas
Of course, reading a quick crime novel feels like cheating when you’re trying to get a (half) heap of books done in 12 months. But there are crime novels that are so good, you wouldn’t mind if there wasn’t a solution, a murderer, or even a crime. In the case of Fred Vargas, you’d be perfectly happy just to watch the hero’s thoughts meander away.
The Chalk Circle Man is Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg’s first appearance in Vargas’ work. These days, an unconventional policeman is pretty much the standard in any novel of the genre, but Vargas doesn’t only make her hero a shabby-looking, mind-numbingly slow policeman who needs to walk around in circles in order to arrive at a conclusion, she mirrors these qualities in her writing. Having read any of her novels I could get my hands on, rather than going through them in a civilized, chronological manner, I knew what to expect. For a new reader, Vargas’ style, as much as her inspector’s, might be an adventure. A naturally fast reader, I always find myself hurrying through the text, often without grasping every detail, just because I’m waiting for something to happen. There isn’t much action in an Adamsberg case. It’s gripping, and pleasantly bizarre in a French way, but the really interesting part is seeing Adamsberg’s mind at work.
In this case, the good people of Paris are somewhere between amused and bemused when blue chalk circles start to appear on the sidewalks overnight, each of them drawn around a random object. No case for the police, but Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is worried and decides to keep an eye on things. Soon, the object in the circle is a dead body, and Adamsberg… well, doesn’t really do anything. For most of the time he thinks, and colleagues, acquaintances and suspects alike are starting to get annoyed. But Adamsberg’s brain is working away, and, almost without leaving his chair, he presents his confused surroundings with a solution.
The unconventional style of the inspector is mirrored by a style that seems to wander about just as aimlessly. It’s hard to pin down what it is, it might even be just bad, incoherent writing, but it works well and makes Vargas’ books that little bit different from other crime novels. Also, the protagonists’ frequent introspection that works so well in Scandinavian crime is not limited to the inspector. There are only a handful of others, but each of them is portrayed by their thoughts and musings. This adds a light philosophical layer to the novel, so much that the solving of the case seems less and less important. Adamsberg’s change of pace and ultimate move then turn into as much work for the reader as for the inspector. Finally getting somewhere feels like struggling out of an armchair that has become more comfortable by the hour.
So. If you feel like slowing down a bit and contemplating the world and the little things with Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, almost like people dropping dead left, right and centre are nothing to worry about, Fred Vargas is your new obsession. You’re welcome.