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l'homme aux cercles bleus

29 august 2012

Fred Vargas is, according to my paperback copy of L'homme aux cercles bleus, "la reine du roman policier français" – the queen of French detective fiction. Royal prerogatives imply that their possessor is somewhat above criticism; the crown can do no wrong. So if I go in for a certain amount of lèse majesté in this review, remember that I'm from a republic. Of course, so is Vargas …

I don't sense a royal hauteur about Vargas's novel, just a sort of indulgence in philosophical frills. Her work reminds me a little of Paul Auster's postmodern detective stories (which are much more popular in Europe than in the US), but also more than a little of French novelist Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog, full of fey, ruminative eccentrics.

At first, we're not even sure that there's a crime at the center of the novel. There certainly isn't one at the center of the circles of the title, two-meter outlines of blue chalk drawn around found objects in central Paris. (Around each is the same never-explained inscription: "Victor, mauvais sort, que fais-tu dehors?") Commissaire Adamsberg is intrigued by the circles, though, and his unfailing intuition tells him that some cruelty is fixing to seep out of them and ooze across the pavements of the city.

Just as Adamsberg has suspected, violence comes to pass. Dead bodies, instead of bits of trash, start to occupy the blue circles. The corpses seem to have something to do with a talkative oceanographer and her two tenants: a handsome blind man, and a daffy older woman who is obsessed with the lonelyhearts columns. The oceanographer turns out to be the mother of the woman that Adamsberg has never really gotten over, and …

… and frankly, this is extremely preposterous to begin with, and it gets only loonier as the murders (ultimately four of them) lurch toward their resolution. When the police (the intuitive, Columbo-like Adamsberg and his rationalist, if bibulous, sidekick Danglard) encounter a new chalk circle, especially if it contains a cadaver, the story picks up a certain procedural interest for a few pages, but it quickly dissipates into philosophical mist. For all the precisely-realized urban settings of the novel, its central characters and motivations are hothouse creations, straight from murder-at-the-vicarage novels. You don't believe a minute of it, despite or because of devices familiar enough from mysteries past. And the philosophy is simply tiresome. After a sharp initial exchange between Adamsberg and Danglard on the nature of intuition in detection (20-23), the rest of the novel turns ruminative when it's not turning simply wispy. I might try another by Vargas someday, but I'll have it on short sufferance; I like my suspensions of disbelief to be a little more believable, thank you.

Vargas, Fred. L'homme aux cercles bleus. 1996. Paris: J'ai lu, 2008.