Friday, September 11, 2009

Guest Post: Peter Rozovsky on Fred Vargas' The Chalk Circle Man

Editor's Note: Peter Rozovsky is copy editor for the Philadephia Inquirer and keeper of Detectives Beyond Borders, which won the Spinetingler Award for special services to the crime-fiction industry. The blog has also has earned my own (vastly less prestigious) kudos for reawakening my love of a genre I'd neglected for nearly a decade. In his guest post, Peter discusses Fred Vargas' The Chalk Circle Man, the controversy it caused when it was declared best translated novel at this year's Crime Writers' Association Dagger Awards and just what significance readers should attach to such honors.

I try always to go placidly amid the noise and the haste, so when The Chalk Circle Man's victory in the CWA's International Dagger award for best translated crime novel ruffled some feathers, I stayed silent.

The award was the third in four years for author Fred Vargas and translator Siân Reynolds, the third in the four years since the Crime Writers Association created the prize. The win was all the more striking since the five other short-listed books were all from Nordic countries. These included Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Played with Fire, about which crime readers may have heard a thing or two.

The one year Vargas/Reynolds did not win the award, they were short-listed (for This Night's Foul Work). The prize went to another French novel: Lorraine Connection by Dominique Manotti, translated by Amanda Hopkinson and Ros Schwartz.

Not everyone was happy about this. The Scandinavian invasion has been all the buzz in international-crime-fiction circles, and the French have been writing detective stories for so long that perhaps people forgot about them.

No matter. Perhaps the mini-controversy is an argument for more-broadly based recognition of books, lists of notable titles rather than prizes for the best book. I mention this because The Chalk Circle Man is a fine story, quirky in Vargas' customary unusual manner. Perhaps because it was the first written (though most recently translated) of her mysteries about commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, its effect is closest to that of a traditional detective story. Here's part of what
I wrote about the book:

Fred Vargas' novels amble far from the investigations that are the staple of the traditional police procedural. At the same time, few crime stories are as apt to leave a reader wondering so ardently: Whodunnit?

That's because Vargas' near-constant emphasis on her characters' quirks communicates the old French message that everyone has his reasons.
That makes The Chalk Circle Man an entertaining story, a satisfying mystery, and an intriguing meta-mystery. And that, friends, is a lesson against getting wrapped up in arguments. What does it mean to be the best book? Did Vargas' novel deserve the honor? I don't know any more than I know whether any of the other five books did. So the only solution is to read them all.

Here are the rest of the short-listed titles. Happy reading.

• Karin Alvtegen, Shadow, translated by McKinley Burnett
• Arnaldur Indriðason, The Arctic Chill, translated by Bernard Scudder and Victoria Crib
• Stieg Larsson, The Girl Who Played with Fire, translated by Reg Keeland
• Jo Nesbø, The Redeemer, translated by Don Bartlett
• Johan Theorin, Echoes from the Dead, translated by Marlaine Delargy
(Picture: CC 2008 by John-Morgan)


Peter Rozovsky said...

Much obliged for the big-up, and congratulations on the new kid.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Loren Eaton said...

De nada and gracias!