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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Chalk Circle Man, by Fred Vargas ($14)(c1996)

It took me long enough to read my first book by Fred Vargas, the "number-one bestselling author in France," according to the blurb page. It was delightful -- contrary to the impression given by the gory cover with blood dripping down the page!

Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is Rousseau's "natural man." He is his own person, yet he works for the body that implements society's laws. He is a commisaire in the 5th arrondissement in Paris. Most of his life up until his recent appointment to Paris was spent in the area around the Pyrenees village where he grew up. His background, his dark, small, wiry appearance, and his uncommon thinking have labeled him a "wild child" by his colleagues. But they can't argue with success. It is his out-of-the-box thinking and the number of crimes he has solved that have won him the appointment to the plum assignment in Paris.

He is aided by the phlegmatic Inspector Adrien Danglard, whose wife ran off and left him with two sets of twins, his own children, and another child, not his own. He drinks a lot of wine, beginning early in the afternoon at the police station. C'est le vin! Jean-Baptiste and Adrien form an oddly complementary couple, each fairly tolerant of the other's peculiarities.

Into their working lives bursts a force of nature, Mathilde Forestier, who at first seems to be an ordinary madwoman. They soon learn that she may be a madwoman, but she is also a famous oceanographer and anything but ordinary. She wants the police to find a blind man she had just met. No crime, no problem, just her desire to find the man. Although others scoff at her request, Adamsberg helps her. He is rewarded when he learns that she knows who the chalk circle man is.

Paris is amused by the man who comes out in the dead of night and draws a blue chalk circle around objects he finds on the streets: for instance, 12 bottle caps, four paper clips, a leather handbag, a Coca-Cola can, a pool of vomit, a broken egg. But to Adamsberg something doesn't feel right, and he waits for l'autre chaussure to drop. The justification comes when a murdered woman's body is discovered in a circle. Was she placed there by someone else or by the chalk circle man? Adamsberg, Danglard, and Mathilde and her collection of eccentric acquaintances are all involved in figuring out who, what, and why.

There is a great deal of charm to this book and a clever, if somewhat dubious, ending. (How could they not know, I predict you will be asking yourself. But, never mind, as Emily Litella of "Saturday Night Live" used to say.)

I can only imagine what Mme. Fred Vargas sounds like in French. Thank goodness for Sian Reynolds, who seems to have done a masterful job with translation, giving us the flavor of how unusual Adamsberg is and how quirky Vargas' writing is. Par example:

"[Adamsberg] had left behind him office walls covered with graffiti which he had scribbled there over the last twenty years, without ever getting tired of life."

"They all sat nodding, without knowing why. There are moments when everyone just sits nodding."

"...[Mathilde] had been quite entertained by a clandestine couple at the Brasserie Barnkrug. They had obviously not known each other long. But when the man got up in the middle of the meal to make a phone call, the woman had watched him go, with a frown, and then she had snatched some of his chips on to her own plate. Delighted with her booty, she had devoured it, licking her lips after every mouthful. The man had returned and Mathilde had told herself that she knew something essential about the woman that her companion would never find out."

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