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The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas, trans Sian Reynolds

Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is not like other policemen. His methods appear unorthodox in the extreme: he doesn’t search for clues; he ignores obvious suspects and arrests people with cast-iron alibis; he appears permanently distracted. In spite of all this his colleagues are forced to admit that he is a born cop.

When strange blue chalk circles start appearing overnight on the pavements of Paris, only Adamsberg takes them – and the increasingly bizarre objects found within them – seriously. And when the body of a woman with her throat savagely cut is found in one, only Adamsberg realises that other murders will soon follow.
Crime novels usually work to a formula of death; and detectives, increasingly, fall into one of a few archetypes – the Sherlock Holmes derived one, say, or the Rebus derived one. The Chalk Circle Man intriguingly suggests, in its blurb, that it falls into neither of these formulae; so, to test that, I picked a copy up…

The Chalk Circle Man is an odd novel; it starts off in a very low key way, with portraits of its different viewpoint characters, each of whom doesn’t quite fit into society or their role in it in the expected way. Commissionaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is the principal investigator of the novel, but he’s a rather unusual character: not the driven, hard-bitten officer you expect, but quite a vague, unfocused, gently meandering person. He tends to be late, and do unexpected things, and Vargas doesn’t try to make that seem like part of a process, but instead makes it clear how little process he has – but how much his subconscious works away anyway; he’s a rather beautiful riposte to the focused detectives who know exactly what they’re doing of much contemporary fiction. The Chalk Circle Man gives us a contrast to this approach to policework; Danglard, alcoholic single parent to five children who look after him as he looks after them, is a wonderfully sympathetically written character, incredibly sharp and intelligent but at the same time far more wary of supposition in a way that stops him making intuitive leaps.

Outside the police force, the principal character is Mathilde Forestier, piscine scientist. She has a different odd take on the world, and doesn’t feel at peace with it or a part of it; her way of dealing with humanity is to stand outside it and observe, and thus she is drawn into a complex tangled web of people who all connect, in various strange ways, to the chalk circle man himself. Charles Reyer, her boarder who flirts with her, is one of the most interesting portrayals by a sighted person of a blind character I’ve ever read; The Chalk Circle Man isn’t sympathetic to him, because he doesn’t need or want sympathy, but expresses his anger at the rest of the world brilliantly, and the way he relates to people through the prism of his loss of sight as an adult.

This is a very tightly focused novel, in terms of characters; The Chalk Circle Man takes place in Paris, but apart from the four viewpoint characters, there are a handful of police, a couple of witnesses, and a few other incidental characters who make up the entire cast. It’s a very dense book in the way characters cross over with each other, and the secondary cast are rounded out with little details; Vargas never lets the reader forget that it isn’t the person the reader knows, only the person filtered through the perspective of whoever we’re following in close third at that moment.

A crime novel has to be more than just a cast. The Chalk Circle Man is perhaps at its best before any murders have happened; the weirdness of the chalk circles make an intriguing and strange plot, as their nonsensical nature and the apparently unfounded interest Adamsberg takes in them – and thus requires his team to take in them – create only more confusion. The lack of a focal point for every character at once, and the different reactions of the characters to events whose interpretation can vary so widely, are brilliant. When the murders start, Vargas loses much of the almost listless focuslessness of the early novel, a kind of drift through events that was beautiful to read and experience; now, things are more focused, and the characters stop being able to simply interact, everything happening through the specific focus of the murders.

The resolution of the plot, the identity of the murderer, is one of the least convincing parts of the book. While Vargas laid down her clues throughout The Chalk Circle Man, and puts them together in a very formulaic way, it is a deeply unsatisfying conclusion, taking the strangeness and existential weirdness and lack of focus of the rest of the novel and suddenly grounding it. Everything suddenly shifts to be much more quotidian, and much less interesting; the meandering, while all making sense in a different light, becomes all much more pointed and purposeful in retrospect.

The Chalk Circle Man is beautiful, and strange; I just wish Vargas hadn’t wanted to write something with a resolution like any other crime novel, because the gentleness and almost-ennui of the start were what really made this stand head and shoulders above most of the genre.

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The Wages of Sin by Kaite Welsh

It is 1892, and the backstreets of Edinburgh are rife with disease. Sarah’s journey into medicine has been chequered: she’s left London and scandal behind her, and embarked on a career that neither her family, nor the male students she encounters in the bastions of Edinburgh’s university is happy about. But what Sarah hasn’t anticipated is the hostility of her fellow female doctors. No one is accepting of a fallen woman.

Then Sarah discovers the battered corpse of one of her own patients in the dissecting rooms, and she is drawn into a murky underworld of bribery, brothels and body snatchers – and a confrontation with her own past. Even in medicine, Sarah realises, success comes at a price.
Medical crime mystery isn’t a new genre; Kathy Reichs’ Temperance Brennan series focus on a forensic scientist, and Patricia Cornwell has been writing about medical examiner Kay Scarpetta for over two decades now. Welsh’s innovation is to reset this same kind of story into a past when both medical and crime-solving knowledge were rather behind their present state…

Wages of Sin is centred on Sarah Gilchrist, who has been sent to Edinburgh to escape some disgrace in London whose nature is hinted at from the start of the novel but only revealed later on. Welsh writes her as something of a snob, and very driven; but she’s also an engaging character, with an absolute desire to be an independent woman engaging in the work of medicine. Those kinds of contradictions drive many of the other characters as well; Welsh shows women attacking other women not as a manifestation of misogyny, but as a self-defence mechanism. However, the male characters tend to be a bit flat, whether heroes or villains; they feel rather cardboard, as does everyone a little beside the fleshed out complexity of Sarah herself.

The plot of Wages of Sin is an interesting one, combining as it does a murder mystery with Sarah’s struggle to get through medical school. The medical side of things takes an increasing back seat as the novel progresses, which is rather frustrating, since it’s well researched and fascinating to see the obstacles Sarah faces as well as what she’s learning. The murder plot is where Welsh’s great strength lies; it takes us across the dark underbelly of Edinburgh as well as into some of its higher houses, and looks at conceptions of gender as an explicit element of the murders. The suspects change and shift, and so much of the chase is affected by Sarah’s preconceptions, which Welsh plays with very well. It’s unfortunate that Wages of Sin includes the developing romantic subplot that it does, given how poorly written that element is an how steeped it is in obvious cliche, and the way the novel ends is a little too convenient and trite, but overall the plot works and the clues are properly placed.

One thing that must be discussed is the way that Wages of Sin is an explicitly feminist novel. Welsh engages with the way women in the late 19th century were patronised and locked out of public life, by other women as well as by men; the way the legal system and social attitudes discriminated against them; and with homophobia. One of the things running through the whole novel is the attitude of 19th century Britain to rape, especially in the upper middle classes; Welsh deals with the topic sensitively, but doesn’t let the reader escape without realising how much some of those harmful attitudes persist.

The place where Welsh’s feminism falls down is in its engagement with sex work; Wages of Sin engages strongly in whorephobic language and models of sex work; this is partly due to its protagonist’s views, but the narrative never challenges those views, and indeed consistently upholds them as true. Given the engagement with sex work that is present in the novel, it would have been nice to have Welsh challenge the views of the society about which she is writing – which tend to be the views of our modern society, too.

In the end, Wages of Sin is a fun novel with a good crime caper at its heart, and a great medical student drama; the romance is overwritten and the ending is trite, but I look forward to seeing where Welsh goes next.

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Retribution by Mark Charan Newton


WHEN JUSTICE FAILS, REVENGE FOLLOWS… Having just solved a difficult case in his home city of Tryum, Sun Chamber Officer Lucan Drakenfeld and his associate Leana are ordered to journey to the exotic city of Kuvash in Koton, where a revered priest has gone missing. When they arrive, they discover the priest has already been found – or at least parts of him have.

But investigating the unusual death isn’t a priority for the legislature of Kuvash; there’s a kingdom to run, a census to create and a dictatorial Queen to placate. Soon Drakenfeld finds that he is suddenly in charge of an investigation in a strange city, whose customs and politics are as complex as they are dangerous.

Kuvash is a city of contradictions; wealth and poverty exist uneasily side-by-side and behind the rich fa├žades of gilded streets and buildings, all levels of depravity and decadence are practised.

When several more bodies are discovered mutilated and dumped in a public place, Drakenfeld realizes there’s a killer at work who seems to delight in torture and pain. With no motive, no leads and no suspects, he feels like he’s running out of options. And in a city where nothing is as it seems, seeking the truth is likely to get him killed…
Newton’s Drakenfeld works, his second secondary-world fantasy series, are heavily influenced by thinking about the Classical world, thinking he has done much of in public on his blog. As a Classicist, it appealed, and having found Drakenfeld an interesting, if at times frustratingly wrong, read, I inevitably picked up Retribution when it came out…

Retribution sees Drakenfeld taking up a new case in a new country in the Vispasian Royal Union. This time, it’s serial killer fair, in a rather Criminal Minds kind of way; brutal, sadistic killings, with no seeming connection, meaning Lucan and Leana have to put together the pieces to find the links and the motives. As in any TV procedural, each death provides more clues, and more clues mean getting closer to the killer; and throw in a coroner who really is ripped straight out of NCIS, and you have something of a cliche on the readers’ hands, albeit one altered by the setting. Indeed, the pressure from the queen, whose friends it is who are being murdered, takes the place of the traditional authority figure (sheriff, mayor), and Sulma Tan the role of the local cop who helps out and proves extremely useful. Newton doesn’t do anything original with this plot, replicated on the page beats we have seen time and again on screen, to the point of boredom and predictability, right down to the kind of motive involved.

The subplot swirling around the politics of Koton is more interesting. Retribution is very heavy-handed in its critique of the idea of social exclusion zones for the poor, and of the impossibility of forcing modernisation on a country; that heavy-handedness goes alongside the plodding statements about the dictatorial rule of the queen of Koton, and her circumvention of the democracy required by the union. However, where it gets more interesting is in the discussion of foreign relations; in a union of nations, what happens when one is destabilised by the prosecution of its king, and has an appetite for expansion? The build up to war, so reminiscent of 20th century history, is convincingly portrayed, one in which every side is suspicious of all others, paranoid about their own security, and taking measures to ensure their safety that actually inflame the tensions.

Retribution also rather falls down on its characterisation. Our two main characters get little character development – except for a single block infodump from Leana revealing her past, in a manner so heavy-handed and simple as to be actively annoying, especially as it doesn’t appear to actually change her relationship with Lucan; and the secondary characters are cliches lifted from other media. Sulma Tan, as mentioned above, is the local cop who helps the team and is very enthusiastic about police work; Nambu is the standard heart-of-gold princess discovering how the rest of society looks by being exposed to it; and Queen Dokuz Sorghatan is every benevolent tyrant you have ever read about combined with every pushy political officer demanding results from the police you’ve ever seen on screen.

What saves the book is good writing. Retribution may be unoriginal, but it is a good retelling of an old set of tropes; Newton’s first person narrative does breathe a certain new life into the hoary old cliches, with a style that is gripping and well-paced, while refusing to dwell on elements that don’t contribute to the story. At times, it feels a little stripped down, and at others (repetition of descriptions, or of Lucan’s reactions to discoveries and observations) a little flabby, but the simple approach taken really does draw the reader in and on despite all the problems.

Retribution isn’t up to the standard of Drakenfeld, and I hope Newton’s next venture into Vispasia takes Lucan and Leana out of the realm of detective show cliches, but it is still a fun and enjoyable book, if rather mindlessly so.

Talus and the Frozen King by Graham Edwards

Meet Talus – the world’s first detective.

A dead warrior king frozen in winter ice. Six grieving sons, each with his own reason to kill. Two weary travellers caught up in a web of suspicion and deceit.

In a time long before our own, wandering bard Talus and his companion Bran journey to the island realm of Creyak, where the king has been murdered.

From clues scattered among the island’s mysterious barrows and stone circles, they begin their search for his killer. Nobody is above suspicion, from the king’s heir to the tribal shaman, from the woman steeped in herb-lore to the visiting warlord. And when death strikes again, Talus and Bran realise nothing is what it seems.

Creyak is a place of secrets and spirits, mystery and myth. It will take a clever man indeed to unravel the truth. The kind of man this ancient world has not seen before.
Talus is a novel with undeniable potential for excellence; prehistoric detective, ancient geopolitics, a chance to explore the social world of a purely oral culture. Unfortunately, it lets an awful lot of that potential slip through its fingers.

Talus is peopled by a central pairing we’ve seen before all too often; from the BBC’s Sherlock to CBS’s Elementary, these characters – the effective, human companion who keeps their overly-intellectual companion on the straight and narrow, reminding them of the importance of the human element in explaining crime, and the cut-off, driven, hypervigilant and extremely intelligent but very strange man they accompany. Talus, in Edwards’ novel, fulfills the role of Sherlock very precisely, needing Bran (his Watson) but unable to tell him so. The rest of the cast are equally uncompelling, with two exceptions; thankfully, these are the (two) female characters, who – with some frustrating exceptions – are painted not only well but sympathetically; unfortunately, we also run into occasional moments where these two are characterised based on their gender – not by the cast, but by the author. The characters are almost all simply one-dimensional, uncompelling motivations for plot advancement.

That plot itself is, essentially, an equally Doylian contrivance. Talus begins with the arrival of its main pair at Creyak as the king’s dead body is found; the whole plot of the novel is Edwards’ drawn out homage to unfolding multiple-murder drama. If you’ve seen shows like Criminal Minds, Midsomer Murders, and so on, you’ll know how this works; the detectives slowly close in as the bodycount rises, until the action-filled denoument, with the detective grandstanding and declaring the truth and how he (it’s almost always, as in Talus, a he) worked out the events. Transplanting this into the prehistoric era should make it more interesting, but that Edwards completely fails to actually change societal dynamics or intercharacter reactions from their modern equivalents takes away even that superficial interest; it’s almost as if a modern community, albeit one with a specific set of animistic/ancestor-spirit beliefs, has been dropped into the past. That avoidance of psychological understanding really lets down the novel, unfortunately.

It is characteristic, however, of the worldbuilding of Talus; superficially there’s some great work put in on the construction of the prehistoric world, but this isn’t carried through to any depth. Belief in the spirits is referenced frequently but, in reality, only seems to affect Bran’s actions; this goes for an awful lot of the novel, which doesn’t seem to look into the consequences of prehistoric societies on their members, including things like the prevalence of diseases, the lack of effective medicine and more; indeed, Talus is almost completely unaffected, in most ways, by the lack of 21st century technology. It’s a bizarre piece of writing that even manages to include a British traveller going to, and returning from, not only Egypt, but also MesoAmerica; all this in a society that has barely advanced beyond dugouts in its naval technology.

In the end, whilst Talus and the Frozen King had great potential to prove both interesting and incisive, Edwards failed on both counts. A real shame.

DoI: This review was written based on a free review copy offered actively by Solaris, the publisher.