- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 26, 2009

THE BLUE CHALK CIRCLE MAN
By Fred Vargas
Penguin $14, 256 pages

AMONG THE MAD
By Jacqueline Winspear
Henry Holt, $23, 320 pages

THE BIRTHDAY PRESENT
By Barbara Vine
Shaye Ayerheart, $25, 336 pages
REVIEWED BY MURIEL DOBBIN

Blue chalk circles are appearing overnight in the streets of Paris and the only person who is worried about them is police Commissaire Jean Baptiste Adamsberg. Most people dismiss the chalk circles as eccentric and amusing. They contain such bizarre items as empty beer cans, trombones, a doll’s head and a pigeon’s foot. Then comes the day when one of the circles contains a corpse and Adamsberg is proved right in his premonition that the chalk man is a vicious killer.

Fred Vargas is a historian and archaeologist by profession who appears to write mysteries with her tongue firmly lodged in her cheek. Her mysteries are different and delightful because their wry dark humor works, and it is understandable that they are already best-sellers in France.

In The Chalk Circle Man (Penguin, $14, 256 pages), her quirky detective Adamsberg is not only unusual but irresistible as a character. Moreover, the author surrounds Adamsberg with others who are as peculiar as he is. His colleague, Inspector Danglard, survives in his job despite a difficult personal life and his own acknowledgment of his habit of starting to drink wine at noon. There is the flickering presence of the mysterious Mathilde, who has spent most of her life studying fish at the bottom of the sea.

And there is Clemence Valmont, a 70-year-old woman who spends her days scanning the classified ads and sending out hundreds of responses to potential mates, none of them successful. There is also Camille, Adamsberg’s “petite cherie” who has been missing for years, although her absence has not impeded his amorous activities.

Basting her plot with irony, Ms. Vargas‘ cast takes on its own life as they move toward a clever and unexpected denouement. Yet the reader’s interest remains focused on Adamsberg, that bundle of eccentricity within which exists a well-honed investigative mind and almost flawless intuition.

Known as “the wild child” in his youth, Adamsberg has established his reputation as a detective by solving four murders “in a way his colleagues had found uncanny.” They complain that he sits around daydreaming, staring at the wall or doodling on a bit of paper, “and then one day he swans in, cool as cucumber and says ‘Arrest the priest. He strangled the child to stop him talking.’” According to Adamsberg, it isn’t so much that he does as he pleases more than that he is “unable to force himself to do something if he was in a contrary mood.” Ms. Vargas‘ approach to the macabre is formidably funny.

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Terrorism in London in the wake of World War I is the grim scenario of Jacqueline Winspear’s latest novel, Among the Mad (Henry Holt, $25, 320 pages), reflecting her capacity to remind readers of the parallels in the periods that lay between major conflicts.

Maisie Dobbs, the author’s investigator and psychologist, again demonstrates the toughness it takes to apply her talents to solving a crisis in a world where the men who hold the power have to be persuaded that competence and skill are not impeded by gender. With a plot set in the early 1930s in London, Ms. Dobbs has her work cut out for her. She is called in to assist a high-level intelligence team from Scotland Yard with the threat posed by a mentally disturbed war veteran warning that he will wield the terrible weapon of germ warfare against the city unless it meets his demands.

Ms. Dobbs’ experience as a nurse working in wards with shell-shocked victims still suffering from the harrowing years of World War I gives her insight into who the terrorist may be and the reasons for his lethal obsession. The book also takes the reader into the grim world of the mentally ill in that era, with a bleak vignette of a young woman who cannot cope with the death of her daughter and whose depression is treated with more brutality than compassion.

There isn’t much laughter in the life of Ms. Dobbs, who has also suffered a severe personal loss in the war. Yet she would be a more intriguing character if she were a little less uncompromising, and her affection for a friend ostensibly dedicated to frivolity may signal that she may find a flicker of fun in her work in future books.

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