The Chalk Circle Man, By Fred Vargas, trans. Sian Reynolds

The Parisian way of life – and death
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Fred Vargas’s crime novels have not been translated from French in the order in which they appeared, so the British reader has to excavate the past of her erratic detective Adamsberg book by book. Vargas is an archaeologist herself, engaged in desiccated laboratory work until she found success as a writer. One cannot help seeing in the clues of crime fiction the traces, the bits of human detritus, that constitute the record of the past.

Such are the blue chalk circles appearing on the pavements of Paris in this, the first Adamsberg novel. Each circle contains an eclectic selection of apparent rubbish: cigarette lighters, a doll’s head, stomach pills. What does it all mean? It turns out we are dealing with good old-fashioned nasty murders in atmospheric quartiers; a body is found in one of the circles, and the random objects become a sequence of vital clues.

Alone among his colleagues, the superintendent detects something sinister and recognises the taste of cruelty he experienced as a child in rural France. Does Adamsberg truly have a sixth sense about the presence of evil? His assistant, Inspector Danglard, is wary of hunches. He has learnt to resist them from a case in which he was wrongly convinced that a young woman had committed a robbery, with disastrous results. The intuitive and deductive minds are in opposition.

The plot introduces a mysterious blind man to whom the gorgeous Mathilde Forestier, famous oceanographer, takes a liking. And Adamsberg is full of fearful fantasies about his lover Camille, whom he’s not seen for nine years. Will the machinations of the plot somehow bring them together?

The speed of events disarms the reader and we cheerfully suspend our disbelief as the complexities unravel. I wondered whether such a heavy smoker as Mathilde would have the underwater-breathing stamina to slit open the bellies of two sharks. But this is a quibble amid the many convincing pleasures of this rich and witty book.