Book Review - "The Chalk Circle Man"

The Chalk Circle Man, is a quirky, cerebral mystery by the French author Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau, writing under the nom de plume “Fred Vargas.” It has been translated into English by Siân Reynolds, and is available from Penguin. Truth be told, the author’s sterling reputation in her home country precedes her and serves a tough act to translate. Reynolds manages to convey the dark ambience; the eccentric, almost impish characters with enough sincerity. However, the final product seems a precision engineered brick-and-masonry cottage, than a fluent, sprightly translation that captures the soul of the original.

Meet Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, Commissaire of the 5th arrondissement, policeman extraordinaire, adept at solving the most baffling mysteries, unable to sort his love-life. Adamsberg is a confirmed outsider, an anamoly in the otherwise logical world of the French police. Dubbed “the wild child” by his collegues, Jean-Baptiste is a confirmed romantic who prefers to be left alone. His often unpredictable and eccentric strategies for catching criminals makes him a rising star in the police force, but a professional outcast.

As a newly appointed commissaire, Jean-Baptiste must cope with his new police comrades, whose feelings alternate between awe and scorn of their new superior officer. His longing for a lost love adds to his loner persona, blurring his perception of reality and fantasy. All in all, Jean-Baptiste comes across as a detective who is “ripe for plucking” in a mystery novel. Vargas reveals the character with a slow, but gripping pace that never feels uninteresting to the reader.

The central premise of the story involves an investigation into the bizarre chalk circles that start turning up randomly on the streets of Paris, enclosing a single object, and accompanied by a cryptic inscription that could be a rhetorical question or an actual clue into the identity of the mischief-maker himself. The objects range from something utterly trivial (a hairpin, a vanilla yogurt, a pair of tweezers) to bizarre (a pool of vomit, “I love Elvis” badge) to the grotesque (a dead cat). Things start getting interesting when a dead body (finally – according to Adamsberg) appears inside one of these circles, and a mysterious woman comes forward who claims that she has followed and seen this “chalk circle man.”

The supporting cast of characters include a deputy with a dysfunctional family of five kids and a penchant for hitting the bottle after lunch (Adrien Danglard), a mysterious hydrologist who prefers to spend her time on land following her fellow citizens around (Mathilde), a secretive blind man (Charles Reyer), and a aging tenant who answers every classified advertisement for a companion (Clémence).

The murder investigation is more a Hercule Poirot-esque fit-the-pieces-together than a pacy Holmes-ian whodunnit. The Chalk Circle Man is an ideal companion for a cold afternoon with a mug of hot chocolate or coffee, than a breezy readthrough in between connecting flights. The plot unfolds in a subtle fashion, and demands the attention of the reader. Why is Mathilde trying to protect the chalk circle man? Who is the mysterious blind man who has suddenly appeared in Mathilde’s life? How is Mathilde connected to Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg? Who is the “Chalk-circle Man” and what are his motives behind his actions?
Read and discover !!

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0