The Chalk Circle Man

For someone who teaches French every day and has been immersed in French literature for about twenty years now, I know very little about really contemporary French books. When I’m in France and browsing the bookshelves, I am not only surprised at what I find, I’m just as lost as I used to be here before I started blogging. Where to begin? I depend on people like Litlove and Emily to tell me what I’m missing, and to put things on my list.

One wonderful French book that made it on my crime-spree list thanks to another blogger was Fred Vargas’s first Inspector Adamsberg novel, L’homme aux cercles bleus. This was an odd, intriguing book that had less to do with traditional detective work than with intuition and personality, and it drew me in and kept me hooked from the first pages to the last.

Inspector Adamsberg likes Paris because it reminds him of his native Pyrenees. You can ignore the parks, he thinks; the rest of it is all minerals, like the mountains. At the station, he wanders around, drawing little pictures on the knees of his trousers, listening to everyone and saying very little, completely exasperating his second-in-command, Danglard. Adamsberg can’t think from point A to point B. He’s hopeless at deductive reasoning. But his hunches have brought more murderers to justice than even Danglard can explain away.

This time, no murders have taken place. Some crackpot has been drawing large blue chalk circles in the streets, with a maddening little jingle written on them: “Victor, mauvais sort, que fais-tu dehors?” (I read this in French, so I don’t know how they rendered the rhyme in English.) In the center of each circle, there’s a new, strange object: a doll’s head, four paper clips, a beer can, a pigeon with a broken wing. No one is concerned about this, except Adamsberg. “These circles ooze cruelty,” he says, shaking his head. And when one of the circles appears with a murdered woman in its center, her throat cut so deeply she is almost decapitated, he is profoundly disappointed to be right, again, about human nature.

Many detective novels make the mistake of being nothing but an assemblage of quirks, and at first I was afraid that L’homme aux cercles bleus would go that direction. Certainly Adamsberg, with his loose, mournful, omniscient approach to detection, and Danglard, an alcoholic with five children, and Charles Reyer, a bitter blind man, and Mathilde, an oceanographer with a taste for human eccentricity, and Clemence, with her pointed shrew’s teeth, are enough quirky characters for three or four books. It might have gone quite wrong. But instead, the smooth, thick prose balances it. It’s a great shrug of a book, with little darts of marvelous humor: life is like this, it says, and all you can do is your best. What does anything mean, if you can’t fight against wickedness and the love we lose? Well, you can drink white wine and follow people to see what they do, and maybe once in a while you’ll see something interesting.

This book is something interesting. I loved it: loved Adamsberg and his unorthodoxy, loved the story that moved in (chalk?) circles until it resolved. I’ll definitely be reading more Vargas in the future, and I recommend you do the same.

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13 Responses to The Chalk Circle Man

  1. Heather says:

    What a great post, about a book that sounds really excellent. Carol over at Book Group of One ( is also a fan of Fred Vargas, and I’ve been thinking I should seek them out – this post definitely confirms that feeling!

    • Jenny says:

      Of course — I should have credited Carol, too, because her posts definitely tempted me to read these! And they definitely come recommended. Thanks, Heather!

  2. bibliolathas says:

    So glad you enjoyed it! I have two more to read in the series now – such a delight to contemplate.

    • Jenny says:

      The crime-spree month finally pushed me to find one and try it, and I’m so glad I did. It had been on my list for ages, and I think other than the Simenon that I liked it best of what I read.

  3. litlove says:

    Smithereens introduced me to Fred Vargas and I have never looked back! I’ve read three of hers now, but have yet to tackle the Adamsberg novels, although I have a boxed set that Mr Litlove gave me last Christmas. Your wonderful review has certainly made me very keen to read them! She is such an interesting writer – there’s always so much going on to keep the reader engaged.

    • Jenny says:

      Which ones have you read? The Mark and Luke ones? I really liked the style of this one, and there was a lot going on. I admit that I improved my vocabulary, too. :)

  4. Betty says:

    Thanks! I just placed a hold on it at the library. Several decades ago I was a French major and read books written in French. Now, my vocabulary is SO outdated (a lot has been invented since the 1960s), not to mention buried so deep in my brain that it is surely irretrievable. So I stick to translations now, and am currently reading A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse, which I found because I was looking to read something published by Europa. I think it could be right up your alley. Sort of a mystery, about literature, and French and modern. I’m only 1/4 of the way through, but I’m liking it a lot.

    • Jenny says:

      Betty, thanks so much for the recommendation! I will certainly put this on my list, as you’re right, it does look right up my alley. I really appreciate it!

  5. Gavin says:

    I’ve read the Adamsberg novels (in translation) and really want to read the rest of her work. Thanks for reminding me about Fred Vargas!

    • Jenny says:

      I always love discovering a new author (or new to me) who has a nice long backlist. This was such a delicious find for me.

  6. Eva says:

    Fun! Have you read any Sebastien Japrisot? He does some really fun, twisty crime novels.

  7. sakura says:

    Adamsberg is one of my favourite detectives! I’ve only read a couple of the books and am looking forward to reading the rest in the series. I also recommend The Three Evangelists by Vargas which doesn’t feature him but is brilliant nonetheless.

  8. Pingback: The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas | Ms. Wordopolis Reads

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