‘Pretentious condiments of Byzantium history, vague psychogeography, quotes from Chateaubriand, and oceanographic metaphors and similes’ – Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas

In the 1970s, psychological and offender profilers such as Richard Walter, Bob Keppel, John Douglas and Robert Ressler (the latter two working out of the FBI’s Quantico Academy) were to the crime novel what Harold Bloom, David Lodge, Stanley Fish and Fredric Jameson were to literary criticism. These men provided us with the theory behind: a) how the mind of a serial killer works and how they murder in a certain pattern and b) how to criticize James Joyce’s Ulysses using a Marxian dialectic or poststructuralist framework. For a writer, the serial killer is the perfect character. He enacts his own narrative. Don’t worry; I’m not going to get all S/Z on your arses.

Here is what I think. A serial killer presents to the writer his (most likely a he) story as an already outlined novel. The serial killer’s murders, distinct in their time-separated enactment, become natural chapters/parts. The first kill (or attempt at a kill – in 1975, Peter Sutcliffe made at least three attempts on women’s lives before he managed to murder Wilma McCann) provides the reader with clues that may or may not be relevant in later chapters/deaths, thus establishing the possibility of multiple narrative paths and delayed closure. The psychological or offender profile, the frequency of deaths and the acceleration in the murder pattern leading up to capture or suicide, are a structural godsend to any novelist. No one can argue that there are more fictitious serial killers than there are actual ones.

Which brings us to Fred Vargas’s The Chalk Circle Man (first published in France in 1996). Here is the recipe: choose a serial killer; make him slightly different from other serial killers (although they all roughly fit offender/psychological profiles). Introduce a cast of quirky characters – a beautiful blind man with an attitude problem who just happens to have been blinded by (and this is not quite clear – rancid juice from the rotten flesh of a lioness – all hail The Red Dragon); a female Jacques Cousteau with a fl‚neurial bent and a predilection for following people; plus a strange old woman with sharpened teeth who cannot find a date. Stir in a cast of police officers – the outsider loner with a mysterious knack of knowing where the bodies are, a ladies man when he can be bothered, whose eternal love has left him; contrasted with an inspector who is an alcoholic divorcee, struggling to bring up five children. Add a bit of hocus-pocus: why are blue chalk circles appearing all over Paris, drawn around seemingly random objects – a lighter, a watering-can rose, the plastic model of a swimmer. Sprinkle it with pretentious condiments of Byzantium history, vague psychogeography, quotes from Chateaubriand, and oceanographic metaphors and similes. Mix them all together until you get what? Well, to be honest, a not particularly interesting novel. By introducing the quirky-triumvirate at the beginning of the book, about a third of the way through you start to think, well, it has to be one of these. But that’s too obvious. Therefore, we wait and, yes, up pops a character who cannot be the murderer but inevitably is; so, the final third of the novel is an explanation why. When the twist finally comes, it is as obvious as Oliver.

I have read two Fred Vargas books before this one: Have Mercy on Us All and The Three Evangelists. I enjoyed both and I will read more. But this novel suffers from trying too hard to be non-formulaic when serial murder is formulaic to the extreme. Good translation by Sian Reynolds by the way.

I’d like to give a few hints to writers – particularly crime writers – about research, and these are observations made from three out of the last five novels I have read. One: Octopuses do not have tentacles, they have arms, eight of them. Two: Lemurs are not monkeys (the same goes for chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orang-utans). Three: No room, staircase, bar is going to smell of cordite, particularly before or after World Wars I and II, and definitely not in the USA. Four: Serial killers are not usually criminal masterminds trying to outwit the police, FBI, forensic psychologists, and/or offender/psychological profilers – they are psychopaths with a compulsion to kill – three times is the minimum to get the classification.

There are some well-written serial killer books out there – Chris Petit’s Psalm Killer, Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet – but all of these books have something in common, they have a lot else going on besides: the Troubles, searing satire, late 20th century British social history. I will add to these authors Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, James Ellroy’s Silent Terror, Michael Connolly’s The Poet and one of my favourites Philip Kerr’s A Philosophical Investigation. Unfortunately, I cannot add The Chalk Circle Man to this list.

Any Cop?: Any cop could have solved this case; the author and murderer don’t exactly run (chalk) circles around the reader.

Steve Finbow


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