The Accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet

When the ordinary becomes extraordinary…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Bertrand Barthelme runs his car off the A35 into a tree one evening and dies, Inspector Georges Gorski has no reason to think it was anything other than an unfortunate accident. But Barthelme’s widow thinks there’s something odd about her husband having been at that spot at that time and asks Gorski to look into it a bit more. Mme Barthelme is an attractive 40-something with more than a touch of the femme fatale in this first meeting, so Gorski finds himself agreeing. Meantime, Barthelme’s 17-year-old son Raymond starts a kind of investigation of his own, in an attempt to learn more about the father with whom he had always had a rather cold, distant relationship. Both investigations will head off in unexpected directions.

This is on the face of it a crime novel, but the quality of the writing, the depth of the characterisation, the creation of place and time and the intelligence of the game the author plays with the reader all raise it so that it sits easily into the literary fiction category, in my opinion at the highest level.

There is an introduction and an afterword, and it’s essential to read them both. The book is presented as a manuscript come to light years after the author’s death, and translated by Burnet from the original French. This device is crucial in getting the full impact of what follows, but I’ll go no further than that since the journey is best taken without a roadmap. This is actually the second book featuring Inspector Gorski. I haven’t read the first one, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, but didn’t find that presented a problem – this one works entirely as a standalone.

The setting is the small town of Saint-Louis, in the corner of France that borders Germany and Switzerland, some time in the 1970s. A drab and dreary little town from the author’s account of it, a respectable backwater. It is brilliantly drawn – I could see the streets and the little run-down cafés and bars, where people have their regular tables and drink their regular drinks each day. I could smell the Gitanes, feel the rain, visualise each person, their class and social standing indicated with subtlety and authenticity. No wonder Raymond thought the next town along the road, Mulhouse, was an exciting metropolis in comparison, with its shops and cinemas and life!

Both towns are important characters in the book but it’s the human characters who make it such an absorbing story. Gorski is a middle-aged man in something of a rut, but without the ambition or desire to find his way out. He is content to be the Chief of Police in Saint-Louis – a medium-size fish in a tiny pool – even if he’s not particularly liked by his subordinates nor respected by those at the top of the social heap. He’s less happy with the fact that his wife has just left him – he’s not altogether sure why and he’s not convinced that he wants to change whatever it is about himself that’s led her to go. He’s a decent man, but rather passively so – neither hero nor villain. It’s the skill of the writing that makes this ordinary man into an extraordinary character.

Raymond is on the cusp of adulthood and, faced with the sudden death of a father with whom his relationship has never been close, is unsure how to react. Burnet does a wonderful job of showing how hard it can be for a young person to know how to deal with these great crises that life throws at us. Raymond struggles to conform to other people’s expectations of how he should behave and seems at first rather unaffected by his father’s death. But as he gets sucked into trying to discover more about Bertrand’s life, Burnet quietly lets us see how grief is there, deep within him, perhaps so deep he can’t make himself fully aware of it – grief either for the father he has lost, or perhaps for the father that he felt he’d never really had. But at that time of life grief is rarely all-consuming – Raymond’s quest leads him into new experiences and new desires, and as he discovers more about his father, so he discovers more about himself.

Graeme Macrae Burnet

All the other characters we meet along the way are just as well-drawn, building up a complete picture of the two neighbouring societies at the heart of the story. Despite the relative brevity of the book, the secondary characters are allowed to develop over time, making them feel rounded and true. Short sketches of people who appear only for moments in a café or on the street all add to the understanding of the culture, which in turn adds to our understanding of how it has formed and shaped our main characters, Raymond and Gorski. Not a word is wasted – with the briefest of descriptions, Burnet can create a person who feels real, solid, entire, as if they might be a neighbour we’ve known all our life.

For me the place and people are what makes this book so special, but there’s an excellent plot at the heart of it too. There are definite undertones of Simenon’s Maigret in the writing, a debt Burnet acknowledges, and lots of references to the greats of French literature. There’s also a noir feel to it, though in line with the town this noir is greyish rather than black. As Raymond and Gorski each come to the end of their separate quests, I found it fully satisfying as both a story and a brilliant display of characterisation. And then the afterword made me reassess everything I’d just read…

Not a word of criticism in this review because I can find nothing to criticise. I loved every lean and beautifully placed word of this slim book, and was wholly absorbed from beginning to end. It deserves and gets my highest recommendation – superb!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Saraband.

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53 thoughts on “The Accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet

  1. Wow! This sounds like the perfect book, if such a thing exists. It takes a great deal of skill to create solid characters out of nothing and I love the idea of the beautifully described town. For a book with such an innocuous title, this really does seem to be full of hidden depths! And now I am very curious about the forward and the afterword…
    Tip top review, FF – I reckon Burnet owes you a drink for this!

    • I almost used the word perfect, but I’m frightened of ever reading the perfect book, ‘cos what would I do then?? But I loved this – so well written. I can’t often visualise a place from description but he put me right into this town and its people. I think you probably need to make room for this on those new shelves… 😉

  2. Ohh, sounds great for winter reading – have still to read The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, about time I started! I loved His Bloody Project. Thanks for sharing your review!

    • I’ll have to backtrack and read The Disappearance… funnily enough it didn’t appeal much when I read the blurb before I’d read any of his other books, but now I can’t wait for my next fix of Burnet. I hope he’s working hard on the next one…

  3. Oh, this sounds fabulous, FictionFan! A character stud9, a crime novel, and the depiction of a place and time all in the same story. I can see how you enjoyed it as much as you did. And Inspector Gorski sounds like an interesting guy, too. What’s not to like?

    • Really a great book, Margot – either as crime or as lit-fic. I actually preferred it to the Booker nominated one, and found his creation of a French atmosphere was more authentic than the Scottish atmosphere in that one.

    • Loved it, as you can probably tell! Just my kind of thing, of course – I love crime that is written as well as lit-fic. Burnet is now officially on my must-read list… 😀

    • I thought His Bloody Project was excellent but in truth I thought this was even better. I thought he got that noirish/Maigret-ish feel perfectly and his France somehow seemed more authentic to me than his Scotland. Must read The Disappearance now…

    • I’ve fallen totally in love with his writing – he’s moved straight onto my must-read list. And while I thought His Bloody Project was excellent, I actually thought this one was even better – I thought his evocation of the town was brilliantly done. 😀

    • I’ve read this and His Bloody Project and loved them both, but haven’t yet read The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau – I shall be putting that right soon, though! Hope you enjoy it when you get to it. 😀

  4. It’s been a very long while since I read a crime fiction, only because I was tired of all the interrogation scenes. But I am surely going to go after this book. Thank you for this extensive review, Fiction Fan. Loved it. 😀

    • Thanks, Deepika! 😀 I love crime, but even more I love crime that’s written as well as lit-fic, and this one definitely falls into that category. In fact, the sense of place and the characterisation is more important than the crime plot, I felt. If you do get a chance to read it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! 😀

  5. Right, I’m off to look for the first one now! I have a thing about reading works in chronological order. I just hope the library has realised what a great write Burnet is proving to be.

    • I kinda wish I’d read them in order too, though I must say this one didn’t have any spoilers for the earlier one that I noticed. But I’ll certainly be looking out for The Disappearance now – two books read and he’s already moved himself onto my essential must-read list. Isn’t it wonderful finding a new favourite? 😀

    • Thank you! 😀 I loved His Bloody Project too, but actually loved this one even more – the way he depicts the town and its people is just brilliant! Ha- I know… neither the cover nor the title really suggest how lit-ficcy it will be, though once you read it you kinda understand why it’s done that way… that’s nicely enigmatic, isn’t it? 😉

    • This definitely gets that same noir-but-not-totally feel as Maigret but for me the quality of the writing is much higher. But they do both have that same talent for creating an atmospheric sense of place and a kind of quirky plot… enjoy!

  6. I do love it when you find one you can recommend without qualms! Sounds like a most intriguing work, and I especially like that it’s complete and succinct. Must look further into this one, FF.

    • Haha – so do I, and it doesn’t happen often! But sometimes everything just comes together – place, time, characters, plot – and what a joy that is as a reader! If you do get a chance to read it, I hope you enjoy it! 😀

  7. Well that’s gone straight on the wishlist (soon to be promoted to an actual copy I fear) A brilliant review and as I loved His Bloody Project so much I’m keen to read more by this author – love the fact we have a manuscript to read too!

    • I reckon anyone who loved His Bloody Project will love this just as much if not more! Two books read and he’s become one of my essential must-read authors, and I’m always so glad to see someone who can do that crossover between crime and lit-fic so well. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did – I suspect you will! 😀

    • I’d love to get your opinion on the authenticity of the sense of place. I visited France several times at round about that period and it felt totally right to me, but a week here and there is obviously never the same as living in a country. Plus it’s an excellent story… 😀

    • It is indeed, and an excellent one! The cover is odd – it kinda makes sense once you read the book, because the device is that it’s a thriller from the 1970s and the cover’s clearly supposed to reflect that, but hmm… I’m not sure it would attract lit-fic readers. However the fact that he’s a Booker nominee probably lets him be a bit playful…

  8. I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned this on your blog before or not, but in the States, there is a movement to really appreciate “literary genre” novels. We’re talking serious writers who are talented and elevate their work to literary, but work within a genre, too. In my opinion, they’re some of the best books because I don’t have to give up a genre I love nor do I have to read something “fluffy.” Brian Evenson is considered a master or literary horror, and Kate Bernheimer leads the way in literary fairy tales.

    • We’re seeing more of them here too and it’s a welcome development as far as I’m concerned – or rather a welcome return. It used to be quite commonplace that crime books should be written as well as literary novels – just the structure and tropes (hate that word!) were different. But we’ve had a couple of decades now where the quality of the writing in genre fiction has often been poor – bad grammar, stilted vocabulary, etc. And graphic everything has taken the place of good plotting and saying something meaningful about society. If we’re getting past that phase, I’ll be delighted…

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