The first line of Fred Vargas' The Chalk Circle Man (Penguin 1996)presents us with a shock and ultimately a lie. Mathilde Forestier is writing in her diary about a handsome man standing too close to her at a bar. To her, he is a stranger or is he? So begins a novel--a Le Rompol-- a French police procedural, featuring Commissaire Adamsberg, one of the stranger literary detectives in a genre populated by bizarre detectives. Adamsberg intuits rather than deduces; he is no Sherlock Holmes. Feelings predominate, which causes consternation among his fellow police officers.
The novel moves beyond Mathilde Forestier's meeting with the man in the bar to Adamsberg's appointment as Commissaire of the 5th arrondissement in Paris and his investigation of the death of a textile merchant, murdered in his own warehouse. While other officers use scientific methods, Adamsberg sits and doodles on a pad or the wall, whatever is convenient, and allows the impressions of the case to flow over him. If someone asks him what he thinks, he cannot respond, because he doesn't know; instead, he expresses what he feels and, in this case, he feels that someone harbors a very personal grudge against the deceased. So while the other policemen interview disgruntled clients, Adamsberg keeps an eye on the dead man's stepson, "Patrice Vernoux, a fine-featured, romantic looking young man of twenty-three." He watches the young man until he knows and then he assigns his favorite officer Adrien Danglard, "a man who dressed impeccably in order to compensate for his unprepossessing looks and pear-shaped figure" to bring the young man in and question him. Danglard is logical and does not see a connection between the young man and the murderer; besides, the young man has an alibi, his fiance vouches for his whereabouts. But, of course, this mystery is just the appetizer, a more bizarre tale awaits us. This murder simply introduces Adamsberg and his team.
For four months prior to the resolution of the warehouse murder, Adamsberg has been following newspaper reports of chalk circles appearing throughout Paris. Each circle contains an item of some sort and the populace has become obsessed with their semiotic significance. Adamsberg believes the circles mean one thing--trouble-- and he begins to think about them, trying to anticipate their pattern. Soon he is proven right again when a female corpse, almost beheaded, is found in a chalk circle. Now the game is afoot and Adamsberg works quickly before the next body appears.
Vargas' novel is claustrophobic, dreamlike, and romantic. As Jeanne Guyon writes: Fred Vargas a inventé un genre romanesque qui n’appartient qu’à elle : le Rompol. Objet essentiellement poétique, il n’est pas noir mais nocturne, c’est-à-dire qu’il plonge le lecteur dans le monde onirique de ces nuits d’enfance où l’on joue à se faire peur, mais de façon ô combien grave et sérieuse, car le pouvoir donné à l’imaginaire libéré est total. C’est cette liberté de ton, cette capacité à retrouver la grâce fragile de nos émotions primordiales, cette alchimie verbale qui secoue la pesanteur du réel, qui sont la marque d’une romancière à la voix unique dans le polar d’aujourd’hui. Les personnages qui peuplent ses livres sont aussi anarchistes et lunaires que savants. Qu’ils soient férus d’Antiquité ou océanographes, le regard qu’ils posent sur le monde combat le conformisme et l’ordre établi avec pour arme la fantaisie et l’humour. To quickly paraphrase Guyon, Vargas' novel plunges the reader into a dreamworld, a world where children like to go (imagine) in order to scare themselves but also a world that is sober and serious.
The Chalk Circle Man surprised me. Several times I thought I had figured the mystery out and then was proven wrong, even though Vargas dropped the clues early. All in all a very satisfying novel with a very unique and appealing detective. But as I said above, it is claustrophobic, closed-in on itself, unrealistic in the sense that no police officer would work as Adamsberg does, but, of course, that is not the point. Ultimately, Vargas wants to talk about character not procedure. Hers is a novel of mood and dream, desire and romance.