Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Chalk Circle Man (Commissaire Adamsberg #1) by Fred Vargas

Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg reminds me of Simenon’s Maigret. It is not just because Adamsberg and Maigret operated in the same territory and had similar jobs. Plenty of series novelists writing of France don’t give me the same feeling as reading a Maigret mystery (see the Aimee Leduc series by Cara Black for one). It is the way Vargas slowly builds the mystery, and adds pauses for thinking, eating and drinking, and chats with passers-by. The brilliant insights and knowledge of human nature both Adamsberg and Maigret exhibit are the reason we love and admire them, though Maigret is careful with his dress and manner, while Adamsberg is usually described as disheveled and oddly put-together in appearance. His associates on the police force admit to being embarrassed for him: “As on every occasion when it looked likely that the commissaire would be the object of critical comment, Danglard had an urge to defend him against allcomers.”

I imagine it quite an honor to be compared with the great Simenon, who wrote 75 books and 28 short stories featuring Maigret. Vargas has her own style, however, for almost all her police characters outside of Adamsberg are capable and independent, with unique identities. I don’t ever remember Maigret’s coworkers standing out, though his wife is always an important influence and character. In this way, perhaps the iconic Swedish series of ten mysteries by Maj Swojall and Per Wahloo featuring Martin Beck may be a better model.

So The Chalk Circle Man is the first book in the series, but was not the first to be translated into English. Publishers sometimes do this, and readers often can’t comprehend why. Perhaps later books in the series seem more accessible—authors may improve their technique as they go along and the publishers are trying to capture an audience with just one book in the series. In any case, I’d not heard of this author until five of the now eight books in the series are available in English, so I began at the beginning.

What stands out about this book is that just about everyone seems capable and clever: the suspects, the neighbors, people one meets in cafes. Vargas is able to sketch even a tangential character with quick, simple strokes, defining them “with a glance,” so to speak. One of her characters usually does the honors for us—summing someone up with a comment. Sometimes she takes a page or two to define someone’s characteristics, but it never seems off the point. We are allowed to relax into the mystery, strolling along and doing only the work asked of us—to figure out the killer before he/she kills again. When you begin this series, you will want to read several, so add them all to your TBR list. It is a little difficult to figure out which order to read them in, so I have done the work for you here:

1. The Chalk Circle Man

2. Seeking Whom He May Devour

3. Les Quatre Fleuves

4. Have Mercy on Us All

5. Coule La Seine

6. Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand

7. This Night’s Foul Work

8. Un Lieu Incertain

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores


  1. It sounds like a great series. Weird about the translations being done out of order!

  2. The link from GR works now -- thank you! Even if it means more on my TBR list. :)