It’s always interesting to read a series out of order. I’ve been struck by how much Fred Vargas packs into her mysteries about Paris police commissioner Jean-Pierre Adamsberg. As you must if you’re writing series fiction, she develops her lead character and a recurring cast of sidekicks — think “Cheers” only in a Parisian police station. But Vargas is also an historian and archaeologist so her interests are somewhat unusual. And now that I’ve read L’homme aux cercles bleus, the initial book in the Adamsberg series, I am more convinced than ever that Vargas is actually writing about — big breath here — epistemology.
Yes, the study of how we know things. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Both for a moonlighting academic, and as the subtext of a murder mystery. Vargas has made a nice theme out of the partnership between Adamsberg, whose working method is almost entirely intuitive, and his colleague Adrien Danglard who is more conventionally intelligent and formidably well-informed. (In later books, we see them collaborate, as Adamsberg comes to rely on Danglard’s fund of information and gift at analysis.)Vargas also begins this novel with a character named Mathilde, an oceanographer who make a hobby of observing strangers in Paris, like someone “creating a cabinet of curiosities,” explains a psychologist about her. “…she is an indefatigable researcher.” Why do I think Vargas might have been writing about herself? She may also be showing her hand when Adamsberg writes in his little notebook, “Yesterday … I asked myself why I was a cop. Maybe because in this job you have things to look for [research: same word in French] with the chance that you’ll find them.” As opposed to academic research, perhaps, when you often have no chance of finding things?
And then again maybe I’m reading too much into a simple murder mystery. Except it isn’t very simple. Someone in Paris is drawing big blue chalk circles on the sidewalk. At the center of each is an abandoned object: a hair curler, a battery, tangled audio tape. Adamsberg finds these circles ominous, exuding evil. Danglard, committed to a more concrete world view, is skeptical until one of the circles contains a body. I have no idea whether the procedure portion of the book is plausible, having thankfully had no experience with the Parisian police. Honestly, Vargas‘ version seems way too interesting but that’s all to the good in a novel.