Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is not like other policemen. His methods appear unorthodox in the extreme: he doesn't search for clues; he ignores obvious suspects and arrests people with cast-iron alibis; he appears permanently distracted.
When strange blue chalk circles start appearing overnight on the pavements of Paris, the press take up the story with amusement and psychiatrists trot out their theories.
THE CHALK CIRCLE MAN is the first book in the Adamsberg series by French writer Fred Vargas. As they have been translated out of series order, fans of this fantastic set of books know Adamsberg well by now, without having had the chance to be in at the beginning so to speak. This release gives the reader a unique opportunity. For existing fans a chance to see where Adamsberg came from, and to consider a first book, in light of knowing how good the series has become. For new readers a chance to start at the beginning if that is your preference.
The strange blue circles that start appearing overnight on the pavements of Paris, each circle enclosing a seemingly pointless and meaningless little article - cigarette lighters, badges, a hat, a doll's head, seem to most people to be a distraction. The press take up the story with great amusement and psychiatrists and other experts are soon making pronouncements on what the artist is trying to say (or not!). Adamsberg seems to be the only person who feels the stirring of malice and sees cruelty in the circles. He is the only person who doesn't seem all that surprised when the body of a woman is found - her throat savagely cut, placed carefully in the middle of one of the chalk circles.
Adamsberg is not your traditional policeman. He's unorthodox, seemingly permanently distracted, he's a thinker and an acute, but unobtrusive observer. He's profoundly aware of human nature yet he often has flashes of insight which seem to have come from nowhere. He constantly baffles his colleagues but his methods work and he's comfortable with who he is.
The thing a new reader to this series is going to get most clearly from THE CHALK CIRCLE MAN is a sense of the quirkiness of Adamsberg. The other ongoing feature of the books is the wonderful cast of supporting characters - mainly of them as eccentric as Adamsberg. All the characterisations become more assured as the series goes on, and at no stage does anyone become cartoonish or unbelievable. There is something quintessentially French about Adamsberg and the world that he inhabits - to this outsider at least. There's also something delightfully matter of fact about them all, and in particular, the way that Adamsberg works - leaving it totally up to his colleagues to adjust, just as it will undoubtedly require from some readers.
I understand that the translation order of a series is often dictated by the perceived popularity of a particular book. Perhaps it was felt that the character of Adamsberg got stronger, more clearly drawn in later books. Perhaps it was felt that the plot was not quite as unique as some of the later books. Regardless of the reason, it's a good book, it introduces Adamsberg with a very deft touch, and it does hint at where the rest of the series is going.
If you're new to the Adamsberg series, you could start with THE CHALK CIRCLE MAN and get a sense of how the rest of the series is going to progress. You can also read the entire series out of order if needs must and that's how the books become available for you. But if you're a fan of something with a strong sense of a place and the people, with a central character who is not afraid to be a little odd, a little eccentric, a little different; decent, caring and extremely human make sure you read these books.
The books in translated order:
2003 - Have Mercy On Us All (Published in French in 2001)
2004 - Seeking Whom He May Devour (Published in French in 1999)
2007 - Wash This Blood Clean from My Hand (Published in French in 2004)
2008 - This Night's Foul Work (Published in French in 2006)
2009 - The Chalk Circle Man (Published in French in 1996)
There is also a standalone novel, released in translation in 2006
The Three Evangelists (Published in French in 1995)
GOAT SONG - Chantal Pelletier
Depressed doesn't do justice to the dripping, sad, obsessed melancholy of the magnificently complex Maurice Laice (More is less just being one of his nicknames). Maurice is just one character that stands out from the page, his boss - she of the totally obsessed with her sex life; Aline Lefevre is gay, out, proud and coarsely (but hilariously and in a strange way touchingly) vocal. Her sex banter drives Maurice crazy - partly from jealousy, partly from embarrassment, mostly because he's feeling his damn age and she's not!
At the core of the GOAT SONG though is a complex mystery - the two dead bodies discovered in the Moulin Rouge have been killed with startling brutality, the following death of a junkie is equally violent and Laice and Lefevre find that the downward spiral of Montmartre is deeper and dingier than they could have imagined. Of course there's a bit behind their desire to clean up the drug problem in their area - and those motivations are revealed as the investigation proceeds. As does the ongoing understanding of all the characters in this fabulous little book.
GOAT SONG is beautiful to read, provided you read it with French attitude. (Okay maybe this Australian's idea of that glorious, complex, deep, introspective, cynical, melancholic, hopeful, celebratory, attitude - but that's the feeling that you get from GOAT SONG). There's unfulfilled desire, fulfilled desire, questioning, sarcasm, friendship, hatred, tacky and the superb. And there's food and wine. It's a complex little book - and it's fascinating that so much happens in 176 pages.
WASH THIS BLOOD CLEAN FROM MY HAND - Fred Vargas
Commissaire Adamsberg is a man with a profound belief in his own hunches. Whilst a lot of his squad are preparing for a DNA technology study trip to Quebec, Adamsberg is really distracted. Firstly, he's distracted because his right hand man, Danglard is quite convinced that they are all going to die in a fiery plane crash and Adamsberg is wearing the brunt of keeping him calm and getting him on the plane. But there's something else that's not right and finally it dawns on Adamsberg that a newspaper report of the murder of a young woman in another district of France has triggered recognition in him. Recognition of nine other murders, all occurring between 1943 and 2003, all in different parts of France. Adamsberg is the only person who is absolutely sure that he knows who is doing these murders, despite the suspect's own funeral, years before.
Leading up to their trip away, Adamsberg runs his theories past a number of colleagues and the police in charge of the latest case and, as he feared, nobody places much credence in the idea that a man, dead for years, could be a prime suspect in the last murder. Adamsberg is obsessed with this case, not the least because he knows the man he suspects, Judge Fulgence, only too well, with a very close family and childhood connection to him.
When he trip to Quebec commences, the plane doesn't crash, and the team arrive and commence their training. Adamsberg returns to his lifelong habit of walking miles in an effort to exercise, think and clear his head, and in the process of which me meets a strange, young French woman with whom, despite his own better judgement, he forms a quick sexual liaison. When she threats to join him on the trip home, he is relieved when she doesn't show up to the plane. When he is lured back to Quebec after a few days, he finds that she has been stabbed to death and he is the prime suspect.
Adamsberg needs to get out of Canada and back to France, where he must conceal himself and solve not only the death of the young woman in Canada, but prove once and for all that a dead Judge is a killer.
There are some really interesting elements to WASH THIS BLOOD CLEAN FROM MY HAND. Guilt - Adamsberg is not sure that he has not killed the young woman - he had blanked out for the period of time and he doesn't know why. Concealment - in order to be safe in France and solve the case of the Judge and the 10 past murders, he must remain free so he goes into a sort of hiding. Betrayal - there is obviously somebody in Adamsberg own team feeding information to the Canadian police about events in France as well. Friendship - Adamsberg takes refuge with an old friend who, along with her resident lodger and 80 year old computer hacker, they provide support and belief in Adamsberg. Loyalty - members of the French Police believe in Adamsberg and go out on a limb to help him. Madness - how could a deadman go on killing, and why would that man have started on a career of murder that has gone on for so long with so much effort to cover his tracks.
And then there is the madness of Adamsberg himself. He's always been a quirky character, prone to hunches, flashes of understanding (or guesswork - depending upon your perspective). He walks miles, he talks to himself, he believes totally in the idea that dead men can walk and he is tortured by events from his childhood. He's tricky, he's not straightforward and Vargas can write a story that weaves a web around the reader and draws you into the joy of the book.
MAIGRET AND THE WINE MERCHANT - Georges Simenon
When prosperous wine merchant Oscar Chabut is shot dead outside a fashionable bordello he has just been visiting with his mistress and secretary, Maigret finds that extra-marital behaviour in Chabut's social group is pretty much the norm. Chabut seems to regard sexual conquest as a means of exerting power and maintaining his self-esteem, and has in the course of his business, created rather a large cast of enemies. Hints of blackmail, anonymous telephone calls and letters and glimpses of a shadowy figure tracking Maigret complicate the case Maigret is struggling to come to grips with, all the while fighting a bad dose of the flu.
MAIGRET'S BOYHOOD FRIEND - Georges Simenon
Taking a bit of a wander back through some of the classic crime fiction authors, I've been reading a few Simenon's. In Maigret's Boyhood Friend, Inspector Maigret receives a visit from his old school friend Leon Florentin. Florentin had been the class clown, and despite only seeing him once since their childhood, Maigret can remember him well. Now, although, nobody is laughing as Florentin's mistress has been shot dead in her apartment, whilst Florentin was there and, not surprisingly, he is now the prime suspect in her murder.
MAIGRET AND THE IDLE BURGLAR - Georges Simenon
From the Book: Is Chief-Inspector Maigret the only person concerned by the death of a thief?
A burglar is found battered to death on a mid-winter's night in Paris. the victim was murdered, stripped of all ID and thrown from a car on to the icy streets, yet his criminal background has Maigret's superiors eager to dismiss the killing as an underworld vendetta. Certainly nothing the police should concern themselves with, especially when they are supposed to be on the trail of a gang of armed robbers.
There is an awful lot to like about Maigret in AND THE IDLE BURGLAR. Despite dreadful facial injuries, Maigret knows the identity of this man instantly from a single tattoo on his body. The victim, Cuendet, is well known to him. He's a career burglar - a Swiss man, who started out very young as a run of the mill burglar; graduating after a period in the Foreign Legion to an extremely professional, cautious and studied burglar. He has a particular method - he carefully cases out a target, using the newspapers and social magazines to pick a victim; frequently moving into a room or hotel nearby so that he can carefully watch his intended target. He often enters houses when the victims are home, quietly leaving with their jewelery or money, not even waking up the householders. He causes no damage, he lives very simply - he even hoards a lot of his booty. And he has earned a grudging respect from Maigret. Maigret is therefore deeply aggrieved when the French Justice system decides that there are bigger fish to fry than solve a seeming underworld vendetta.
But the French Justice system is currently upside down as far as Maigret is concerned - the police don't control their own actions - Public Prosecutors now control the priorities and methods of investigation, and that is causing a lot of resentment in long-term career Police. So whilst he is seemingly concentrating on finding a gang of hold-up men - because Justice is now obsessed with crime against money - not violence against people in Maigret's opinion - he also quietly works on solving the killing of Cuendet.
In the days before mobile telephones, faxes, email and other forms of instant communication, investigation's proceeded differently. Part of the attraction of these books is the way that a police force knows it's constituency - it's citizens. They sniff the wind and find the scent, and their methodology doesn't feel overly dated because the characterisations in Simenon's books are so vivid and so enjoyable. The sense of indignation that is almost seething from Maigret's pores over the focus in crime fighting is palpable.