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Odd messages spur a mystery

Chalk circles appear at several Paris sites. Then, a body is found in one of them.

The Chalk Circle Man
nolead ends nolead begins By Fred Vargas

Translated from the French

by Sian Reynolds

Penguin. 256 pp. $14 (paper)

nolead ends nolead begins

Reviewed by Peter Rozovsky

Fred Vargas' novels amble far from the investigations that are the staple of the traditional police procedural. At the same time, few crime stories are as apt to leave a reader wondering so ardently: Whodunnit?

That's because Vargas' near-constant emphasis on her characters' quirks communicates the old French message that everyone has his reasons.

Here, Vargas rather skillfully manipulates the reader (OK, she manipulated me) into believing at various times that any of four characters could be the killer, for the simple reason that each of the four has a reason, character trait, or behavioral quirk that makes him or her a plausible suspect.

How good is Vargas? In July, The Chalk Circle Man won the International Dagger award for translated crime fiction from the Crime Writers' Association in the United Kingdom. The honor was the third for Vargas and her translator, Sian Reynolds, in the award's four years of existence.

As in Vargas' Have Mercy on Us All (2003), a series of odd messages triggers the mystery. In that novel, the messages were odd notes slipped into a modern-day town crier's news bulletins. Here they are visual: a series of mysterious chalk circles that appear in several Paris neighborhoods, each circle enclosing some odd object. Then, one night, a dead body, throat slashed, is found in one of the circles.

The very oddity of the circles lets the intuitive Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg and the analytical Lt. Adrien Danglard consider any number of possible theories. I'll let you read the book to find out what Vargas makes of theories.

International crime-novel series are often translated out of order, occasionally at the cost of suspense. Readers are best advised to work their way through Jo Nesbø's excellent Norwegian police thrillers, for example, in order of original publication rather than of English translation.

For The Chalk Circle Man, Vargas' English-language publishers went back to the first Adamsberg mystery after earlier having issued books two, four, six, and seven (the eight books include six novels, one graphic novel, and a collection of novellas.)

This presents no continuity problems, however. Vargas' characters are like something out of a fairy tale - eternal opposites, ever-renewing archetypes despite their fresh adventures each time. That's why each novel's opening feels new.

(My own favorite, and one of the great openings in all of crime fiction, comes in Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand [2007]. Adamsberg contemplates a broken central-heating system. He hopes to have it repaired, of course, but mostly he thinks about himself, the heater, and the place they share in the universe. Adamsberg shivers with Danglard. The two share personal secrets, and they take opposing approaches to a forthcoming police seminar. And that, for all practical purposes, is the chapter. There is barely a hint of the investigations to come. The chapter reads more like the opening scene of a two-man show, all the emphasis on contrasts between the two characters.)

Readers who know the Adamsberg novels translated earlier will learn in The Chalk Circle Man the secret of Danglard's fifth child (I don't remember the story being told in the later books), and there are some delightful scenes of the single father Danglard and the children he loves. The Chalk Circle Man also offers more, and maybe even slightly different, physical description of Adamsberg.

For the most part, though, readers of Vargas in English may be reassured to know that Adamsberg has been Adamsberg from the start: intuitive, occasionally abstracted, infuriatingly prone to appear relaxed when Danglard is anything but, and entranced, upset, and always worried by his mesmerizing sometime lover, Camille.