Saturday, 25 July 2009

“The Chalk Circle Man”, Fred Vargas

Fred Vargas, described by the Guardian as “the hottest property in contemporary French crime fiction today” and winner of the Crime Writers' Association International Dagger multiple times undeniably has a head of steam behind her in terms of expectation creation. In this light “The Chalk Circle Farm” held a lot of promise, combining an author new to me with a Parisian setting, a location with so much potential for absorbing crime fiction.

The premise is pleasing at the outset. Adamsberg a quirky yet visionary detective with an ability to see deeper meanings in ordinary events, and Danglard, a more grizzled traditional cop with issues often trod in crime fiction supply provide good raw material for the sort of policing double act that fiction thrives upon.

Inherently Vargas' writing, and the way the translation is handled by Sian Reynolds, feels as though it's very good in a literary way. This is a book that leaves you in no doubt that there are depths to it and that by reading it you are being improved. This, as Francis Bacon would have put it, is the sort of book to be chewed and digested; and herein for me lies the problem. In using crime as the hook from which to hang high literature Vargas lessens the impact of the crime. The initial premise, that the Parisian police would be so engaged by what initially seems like trivial graffiti, indeed that anyone would notice scrawled blue chalk circles amidst the bustle of Paris does not ring true. This frustrates, when Adamsberg declares that “[t]here's cruelty oozing out of those circles”, the writing comes across as powerful, but that the time can be spent to think about it and identify the cruelty stretches credibility.

I'm sure this says as much about me as it does about Vargas' writing, but I struggle with metaphysical literature. “The Chalk Circle Man” is full of symbolism and concepts of how the notions of reality start and stop – which is interesting, provocative, and sadly not really what I'm after in something categorised as 'crime'. Indeed, this is much less a book about murder, and much more a work about reality – a fact that in retrospect is continually signposted – one of the first references to objects left in the chalk circles talks of two books, contrasting the “Metaphysics of the Real” with “The Fun to Cook Book”. This theme is most clearly shown in the workings of the supporting cast - the blind man, the scarred oceanographer, the deserted spinster. These, initially engaging, come across less as rounded people as devices to serve ontological purposes, creating different views of the world in which the events can take place. It works effectively on this level, but it is inherent in such a work that by doing this well the nature of 'realism' is challenged, which raises questions about whether this is an effective work of crime fiction. If we accept that there are multiple realities is the crime, and ultimately the murder, still something tangible and real?

As Fiona Walker puts it in her review on Eurocrime, these are “not for people who demand gritty realism from their crime fiction”, and while I think there can sometimes be too much grit in crime fiction, this more ethereal writing doesn't gel with what I'm looking for in a roman policier.

1 comment:

  1. A very interesting review! I think a crime novel can be good literature, but agree that when you label something ´crime´ you have certain obligations towards the readers to take the crime seriously. It sounds as if this may be the problem in Vargas´ book.