“The Accident on the A35” by Graeme Macrae Burnet: “in world that is neither true nor false, what is real?”

To get the most impact from this book, I would advise readers to leave the potentially slightly distracting “Foreword” to the end. Advertised as a sequel to “The Disappearance of Adèle Bédeau”, also featuring Inspector Georges Gorski, this can be read as a stand-alone novel. Reading the two books “in order” may help to clarify Gorski’s personal situation, but I think “The Accident on the A35” has a better pace and more interesting characters and wry humour.

When local lawyer Bertrand Barthelme, an influential figure in the provincial French backwater of St. Louis in Alsace, is killed in a road accident one Tuesday night, foul play is not suspected. Unable to resist pleasing Bertrand’s pretty and surprisingly young widow Lucette, Gorski goes beyond standard procedure in an attempt to check on Bertrand’s final movements, discovering in the process that he has been lying to his wife for years for some unknown reason. Meanwhile, Bertrand’s seventeen-year-old son Raymond embarks on his own sleuthing exercise, intrigued by the discovery in his father’s desk of a scrap of paper bearing an address for the nearby centre of Mulhouse, in what looks like a woman’s flamboyant handwriting, quite out of keeping with his father’s stern image.

The detective story proves incidental to the essence of the book, which is the in-depth psychological study of the two main characters, Georges and Raymond, together with convincing little portraits of the supporting cast, bringing them alive as authentic characters with recognisable foibles. Added to this is the strong sense of place: the claustrophobic, inward-looking conservatism of a small town where mediocrity is expected and dullness is the comfortable norm. Yet this being set in , I think, the early 1970s, there is a flicker of dangerous revolt in the reference to Sartre, whom Raymond is absorbed in reading: a novel is “neither true nor false” but is must seem “real”.

Reminiscent of Simenon, the strong sense of being in France is heightened by the author’s skill in producing what purports to be a painstakingly precise translation of a French novel, clear, concise and vivid in style but also constrained, rather like the main characters themselves. Although very different in theme from the author’s prize-winning “His Bloody Project”, both the “Gorski” books continue the common factor of a sensitive, troubled adolescent boy denied affection and empathy by a harsh or uncommunicative male figure. Raymond cuts (sometimes literally) an often amusing but poignant figure, secretive and observant, easily embarrassed, desperately worried about what people think of him, unable to prevent himself from antagonising those whom he likes or loves, with occasional bursts of short-lived euphoria when, no longer controlled by his father, he manages to kick over the traces with some “real”, however bizarre, action in a dull “unreal” world.

Gorski seems similarly emotionally stunted, the son of a deceased pawnbroker who “plays the part” of a detective, potentially very successful with his perceptive, persistent approach, but oddly passive in his personal life, and like Raymond, finding it hard to engage with others, estranged from his wife, and frequently the butt of mockery, dismissed as a plodder.

I found this book a page turner, ramping up a high degree of tension towards what seemed likely to be a fateful but unpredictable end. Both very abrupt, and leaving a great deal to my imagination, the ending disappointed me initially, despite some ingenious twists. On reflection, I decided it is actually quite subtle and effective.

I was also irritated at first by the repeat of the quirky device used in “The Disappearance of Adèle Bédeau”, namely the claim that both books are the work of the author Raymond Brunet – not a spoiler since we are told this in the Prologue. There is speculation as to the extent to which “The Accident on the A35” is autobiographical, accounting for Brunet’s own trouble personality. Since the two novels would stand quite well without this extra twist, I am not sure it is beneficial, particularly since it serves to distance the reader somewhat from the drama.

Having said this, Graeme Macrae Burnet manages to engage us with the characters by the sheer quality of his writing, saved from bleakness by moments of humour, and the promise that there may be a third book in the trilogy – another manuscript also having come to light in 2014.

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