Home > 1990, Crime Fiction, French Literature, Vargas, Fred > I expected a chef, I got a four stars chef

I expected a chef, I got a four stars chef

L’homme aux cercles bleus by Fred Vargas. 1996 English title: The Chalk Circle Man

The Chalk Circle Man is the first novel of the Adamsberg series but one of the last translated into English. I’d rather read them in the right order so I started with this one. Commissaire Adamsberg has just been appointed to a Parisian police station (5ème Arrondissement, i.e. le Quartier Latin). In this volume, we discover Adamsberg world, personal history and his way of thinking without thinking, loving without loving and solving crimes with a slow voice and an incomparable coolness. We guess that he and Inspecteur Danglard will be an complementary and efficient duo.

Now the plot. A strange man draws blue circles around inanimate objects on the sidewalks inParis. He does it at night, chooses random objects and draws a circle around them. Is it a sort of work of art pointing at our consumer society? Is it the work of a maniac? From the start, Adamsberg smells cruelty behind this and carefully keeps watch. No crime has been committed so far but he expects a murder. So he’s more resigned than surprised when the first corpse is found.

As always I’m not good at writing about crime fiction. I can’t even describe Adamsberg, Danglard or the side characters. However, after spending a great time reading it, I wondered why I liked this one and couldn’t finish Michael Chabon’s book the other day. But first, I have to say that I don’t read a writer’s biography before reading his/her book. I love diving into a book clean of any prejudice or assumption about the writer; I want to meet his/her work before meeting him/her. I hadn’t heard of Chabon when I bought his book; it just seemed right up in my alley. This is why I didn’t know he had won the Pulitzer price in 2001 or that he was a champion of creative writing classes when I started reading his book and at the same time thinking of a recipe, an idea I used for my post.

I wouldn’t say Chabon is a bad writer, not at all and btw, who am I to judge? I thought it was well-written, with a complex plot, unusual characters but it sounded fake to me. As we say in French “La mayonnaise n’a pas pris”, literally, “the mayonnaise didn’t thicken”.

On the contrary, Vargas doesn’t sound fake and I marvel at the chemistry she creates between her work and her readers. Talk with a French reader about books. At a moment, he/she will ask “Have you read Fred Vargas?” Whatever your answer, he/she will follow by a “Oh how I love Adamsberg!” So it’s not only me. How does she do it?

In appearance, Vargas’s book didn’t make me think. But now, if I let my mind wander, it does address a lot of issues in such light touches that it reaches you. Cruelty and how it is intrinsic to human nature. Love. Loneliness. Parenthood. Handicap. Pride. It reaches you in spite of you, like a drizzle of issues. You don’t realise what’s happening until you’re wet. Is that the clue, the difference between Chabon and Vargas? She’s more profound than him? I’m not sure.

Fred Vargas works as a researcher. She never graduated in literature. I don’t think she’s taken writing classes. Writing isn’t her job. Writing is her hobby and maybe a necessity. The idea lingers in my mind, flows back and forth in tidal waves and brings back Reiner Maria Rilke and his letters to Franz Kappus. It carries along Rilke’s ideas about writing as a necessity, as something personal you have in you, something you have to do to be yourself, something that gives away who you are.

And that’s it. I didn’t feel Michael Chabon was giving me something personal through his book. I feel Fred Vargas does. In my eyes, he’s a gifted craftsman, she’s an artist. I have nothing against craftsmen but I prefer artists.


  1. July 9, 2011 at 11:57 pm

    Hi Emma, I’ve finally found my way here via Caroline–she mentioned you were also going to read Balzac with us, which I am so glad to hear! I’ve not yet read Fred Vargas, but I am also a fan of crime fiction and have this on my reading pile. I’ve heard Adamsberg is somewhat quirky, but I like quirky. I’m very interested in what you have to say about the difference for a writer between being a craftsman and an artist and wonder (and hope) it will come through the English translation!


    • July 10, 2011 at 7:26 am

      Hi, thanks for visiting. Yes I’ll be reading the Balzac, post is due on July 19th right?
      If you enjoy reading crime fiction, I recommend you have a look at Guy Savage’s blog (http://swiftlytiltingplanet.wordpress.com) he’s very good at reviewing crime fiction and you’ll find different books from the ones you see everywhere in bookstores.

      Fred Vargas has a lot of fans here in France and she deserves them. Her last book was released recently and I’ve heard it’s very good.


  2. July 10, 2011 at 3:06 am

    I bought a Vargas novel after a recommendation from you some time back. I’ll have to get to it soon: The Three Evangelists.


    • July 10, 2011 at 7:20 am

      I think you’ll like The Three Evangelists better than this one.
      She really has something in her style and her way at observing life through a personal lense. I wanted to add quotes but I couldn’t translate them right. It’s not available on the kindle and you can’t read the first pages on Amazon, so, sorry, no quotes. (unless you want some in French)


      • July 10, 2011 at 4:47 pm

        You underscored the idea that I will like this author and need to get to the book I have sooner than later.


        • July 10, 2011 at 6:14 pm

          We usually have rather similar reading tastes; Caroline agrees with me and I think Max liked the one he read. So yes, I guess you’d like her too.


  3. July 10, 2011 at 7:52 am

    I hear you about the craftsman versus the artist. The only Vargas I read so far is The Three Evangelists. I loved it. Meanwhile I have bought a few Vargas novels, an Adamsberg as well. The one that starts in London Highgate Cemetery… (I have a thing for cemeteries and that is one I need to visit). It is not the first in the series, I suppose.
    I might not be qualified after one book but I thought she really is amazing.


    • July 10, 2011 at 8:29 am

      I think she’s amazing too. I’ll read the Adamsberg in chronological order, I want to see how she builds the relationship between Adamsberg (Adam’s Mountain, she has something with the Bible) and Danglard.


      • July 11, 2011 at 6:09 pm

        I think I got the lousy cover.


        • July 11, 2011 at 7:58 pm

          You got The Chalk Circle Man ? The English cover is terrible and has nothing to do with the atmosphere of the book. The French one is good.
          I’ll try to include French and British or American covers, it’s really interesting to see the difference.


  4. leroyhunter
    July 12, 2011 at 10:32 am

    “It reaches you in spite of you, like a drizzle of issues. You don’t realise what’s happening until you’re wet.” What a great line Emma – you’re on a roll!

    I’ve always known Fred Vargas as a name, but never really had a reason to read her stuff – you’ve given me one. Sounds great.


    • July 12, 2011 at 7:05 pm

      No I have the Three Evangelists–but not a very good cover. I’ll get to this soon, but after the two I’m currently reading it’s the next Thompson Pop. 1280.


      • July 12, 2011 at 8:12 pm

        I’ll be curious to read your review of the Three Evangelists.


    • July 12, 2011 at 8:11 pm

      Let me know what you think of her when you read one of her books.


  5. July 12, 2011 at 7:52 pm

    I LOVE Vargas – she makes it all feel so simple, such a gift given to the reader. I’ve read three or four crime novels by her now, but not this one. I’d really like to read through them all.


    • July 12, 2011 at 8:14 pm

      Thanks for visiting.
      She’s fantastic. Her characters are unique and so human, flawed and hesitant.


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