Title: L’homme aux cercles bleus
Author: Fred Vargas
First published January 1, 1991
220 pages, Paperback
ISBN: 9782290318324 (ISBN10: 2290318329)
For the past four months, mysterious blue circles have been appearing at night on the sidewalks of Paris. Within each circle, a random object is left behind: a candle, a yogurt cup, a pigeon’s foot, a hairpin.
Some say it’s an innocent prank, but not Commissaire Adamsberg. He senses something more sinister at play.
As he delves deeper into the case, he realizes that these circles are a warning – and the next one will be deadly.
About the Author
Fred Vargas, the accomplished French historian, archaeologist, and writer, is a pseudonym for Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau (often misspelled as “Audouin-Rouzeau”). Her father, Philippe Audoin(-Rouzeau), was a surrealist writer who was close to André Breton, and her brother, Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, is a noted specialist of the First World War who inspired the character of Lucien Devernois.
While her background lies in archeo-zoology and history, her interest in the epidemiology of the Black Death and bubonic plague led her to write “Pest Roads,” a definitive scientific work published in 2003.
As a novelist, Fred Vargas writes crime stories set in Paris, featuring Chief Inspector Adamsberg and his team. Her novels often showcase her fascination with the Middle Ages through the character of Marc Vandoosler, a young specialist in the period.
To separate her scientific persona from her public persona as a writer, she adopted the pseudonym Fred Vargas, with “Vargas” being the same pseudonym as her twin sister, Jo Vargas, a painter. For both sisters, the pseudonym “Vargas” was inspired by the Ava Gardner character in “The Barefoot Contessa.”
Her crime fiction has won three consecutive International Dagger Awards from the Crime Writers Association, a first for any author. Sian Leonard, her English translator, was also recognized for each award.
In her debut novel, L’homme aux cercles bleus (The Chalk Circle Man), published in 1991 in France, Fred Vargas introduces the world to her complex storytelling, vintage mystery style, and quirky characters. Vargas, a historian and archaeologist by profession, infuses the story with layered themes of identity, justice, social anxiety, and mental illness to create a thrilling and engaging read for mystery fans.
The story revolves around the peculiar police investigation of a series of blue circles chalked on the pavement in different locations around Paris. With no apparent reason or message, the circles pose a mystery until they lead to the discovery of a horrifying murder.
Soon, eccentric Commissaire Adamsberg is on the case alongside his dedicated but conventional team of detectives. As they delve deeper into the investigation, they realize that their prime suspect is part of a group of vigilantes seeking justice for crimes the legal system has failed to solve.
Tensions escalate, and danger lurks around the corner as the detectives try to apprehend the killer before they strike again. Vargas gradually unveils the plot through a series of twists and turns, carefully building up the suspense until the satisfying reveal of the killer’s motive.
She employs a writing style that’s both cerebral and witty, filling the novel’s pages with dry humor, vivid descriptions of the Parisian setting, and vivid characters. The novel’s central protagonist, Adamsberg, is the magnetic, unconventional, and deeply empathetic force that drives the story forward.
Other supporting characters add intrigue, depth, and complexity to the plot, giving the narrative a broadness that is almost cinematic. However, the book’s pace can be slow at times, and some readers impatient for a fast-moving plot might find themselves stalling.
While Vargas excels at developing her characters, some of them, like the suspects, are underdeveloped, and the narrative sometimes relies on coincidences and red herrings to sustain the mystery. Overall, L’homme aux cercles bleus is an impressive debut that holds up to this day.
Vargas’s intricate and thoughtful writing style, combined with a fascinating Parisian setting and a skilfully crafted mystery, makes for a riveting read. Fans of the vintage detective fiction genre, with its slow-burn tension and meticulously plotted mysteries, will find this one hard to put down.
With that said, those looking for quick thrills and predictable plot points might want to look elsewhere. But for anyone who wants a clever, well-written mystery with unexpected twists and great character development, L’homme aux cercles bleus is a must-read.
I would give it a solid 4 out of 5 stars for its engaging prose, memorable characters, and satisfying conclusion.