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by Fred Vargas and Siân Reynolds, trans.
Knopf Canada, January 2009
256 pages
$29.95 CAD
ISBN: 0307396878

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The ways of publishers are such that it is only now, some five years after Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg's first appearance in English (and sixteen years after he first saw the light of day in his native tongue) that unilingual English readers can read the book that introduced him to the world.

THE CHALK CIRCLE MAN has many of the characteristics of later books in the series. Adamsberg, here 45 years old, is just as dependent on his intuition, just as eccentric as he is later on, and pining after his petite chérie, Camille. He is newly assigned as police commissaire of the 5th arrondissement of Paris. His deputy. Danglard, finds his new boss unsettling in his peculiarities and dangerously illogical in his presumptions. But he is also aware that this "wild child" has a string of successful cases behind him, cases that had baffled more traditional policemen. And so, though he may argue with Adamsberg (as will the reader, in all probability), he is sensible enough to stay out of his way, observe what he does, and try to learn from it.

Adamsberg's first Paris case is certainly bizarre. Someone is chalking blue circles in various locations that contain apparently trivial objects (part of a watch strap, a dead mouse, and so on). Most observers find the circles intriguing but harmless. Adamsberg is less sure, sensing, as he says, the evil that is seeping out of them. In time, of course, he is proved right.

One of the great charms of a Vargas novel is the cast of secondary characters, each as unpredictably odd as Adamsberg himself. Here we have Mathilde, who, when she is not off investigating the lives of ocean fish, likes to follow certain people around Paris to understand what they are about. There is Charles Reyer, a man blinded in a lab accident, who comes to lodge with Mathilde, and Clémence, an old woman living on the top floor of the same house, who has sharp teeth and a highly developed romantic fantasy life. All are, to a greater or lesser extent, important to Adamsberg's investigations.

Readers familiar with Adamsberg in his later incarnations need not be told that neither his thought processes nor his police procedures are in any way intended to reflect plausible reality. Rather, Vargas dances on the shifting border between fantasy and fact, occasionally stepping over into an arbitrary oddness, but usually managing a delicate balance. Once again, Vargas is very well served by her translator, Siân Reynolds. In other hands, Vargas in English might have come across as a rather soggy bit of pastry; Reynolds manages to convey the magic of a perfectly executed Paris Brest.

A further note on the peculiarities of Vargas publishing. The translation reviewed here was published in Canada in the first week of January of this year. It will be published in Britain next month. As far as I can see, a US edition has yet to be announced.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, January 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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