The actual story in this novel—a variation on the classic serial murder case—comes swaddled in layers of narrative whimsy, psychological exegesis, and self-consciously fine writing. That’s both good and not so good. By deploying a high literary style that is alternately playful and serious, Vargas is able to work imaginative inflections on some now-standard tropes: a villain who seems to be following the dictates of a strange inner compulsion, a string of apparently disparate killings that may serve to hide the motive for one particular killing, an investigation that uses the tools of psychology to tease out the villain’s homicidal logic, a slow-building aura of suspense that arises from waiting for the next move in a campaign of terror. Vargas, in short, knows her way around the tradition of serial-killer fiction that originates in cornerstone works such as The ABC Murders, by Agatha Christie, and Cat of Many Tails, by Ellery Queen. In striving to invest that tradition with a measure of sophistication, however, she runs the risk of obscuring the contours of her plot.
By and large, the plot conforms to type. All over Paris, in arrondissements far and wide, a faceless city dweller is choosing to make his mark in a most unusual fashion. In the early morning hours, before the Métro closes for the night, he (as the title indicates, and as an eyewitness vouchsafes, it is indeed a man) stops at a patch of ancient pavement and draws a neat circle in blue chalk around an ostensibly random found object. The list of encircled objects steadily grows—an orange, a piece of wire, a candle, and so on—but no pattern emerges to explain why the man has chosen these bits of flotsam and jetsam from the churning urban sea. Then, one morning, it’s the body of a murdered woman that turns up inside a freshly sketched perimeter of chalk. Then a second corpse gets the chalk-circle treatment, and then a third. All three victims have had their throat slit. Otherwise, as far as the police can determine, there is no connection between them, and likewise there is no discernible motive for anyone to end any of their lives. Until fairly late in the novel, the only apparent method to all of this madness pertains to the geography of the Chalk Circle Man’s activity: Much of that activity clusters in either the Saint-Georges and Pigalle neighborhoods on the Right Bank or the Panthéon and Montparnasse areas on the Left Bank.
Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, newly installed as commissaire of the 5th Arrondissement after spending his early life in the provinces, is just the man to solve this quintessentially Parisian crime spree. He’s a homely and unkempt fellow, and Vargas plays up his status as naïve rustic among jaded cosmopolitans. She calls him a “wild child” and celebrates him as a creature of pre- or post-rational intellect. His attunement to the subliminal vibrations that connect people with their destinies, she contends, has enabled him leap over his more plodding colleagues in the French gendarmerie. The puzzle on which Adamsberg works his magic contains a few smart twists, and while some readers may guess the correct solution to that puzzle, few of them will be able to deduce it. Vargas drops a fair number of clues along the way, but they are thin and brittle—like the fallen leaves that Adamsberg pauses to contemplate as the case winds to a finish.
The novel, the first in a series about Adamsberg and his retinue, is very much a late-modern work—and very much a French work. Vargas adopts a highly conceptual approach to what remains, at its structural core, a police procedural of the sort that Ed McBain might have written about the cops of the 87th Precinct. Although Adamsberg comes across as a taciturn and down-to-earth fellow, his creator lades her depiction of him with rambling theoretical discussions of his version of police procedure. The Chalk Circle Man contains some detection, but far more abundant in its pages are instances of meta-detection: Both the author and her principal characters chatter quite a lot about what it’s like, and what it means, to be a detective. Vargas’s emphasis on her hero’s intuitive faculties is another aspect of the tale that has an honorable French lineage. Adamsberg, like his illustrious fictional predecessor Inspector Maigret, is an inscrutable genius par excellence, and Vargas evokes the special qualities of Adamsberg’s mind with brio as well as brilliance. Yet she writes about those qualities at such wearying length that one longs for the crisp, exacting technique that Georges Simenon uses to summon Maigret into being.