The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Opposite and equal…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is the story of two men, residents of the drab little town of St Louis on the French side of the Swiss border. One, Georges Gorski, is a police inspector; the other, Manfred Baumann, is a loner who frequents the bar of the Restaurant de la Cloche – the restaurant where Adèle Bedeau worked before she disappeared. There is no real reason to assume that Baumann had anything to do with her disappearance, except for his strange behaviour and the lies that he tells. But is this a sign of guilt, or simply a symptom of his general social ineptitude? Gorski doesn’t even know whether there is anything to be guilty about – in the absence of a corpse or anything to indicate violence, it’s impossible to know if Adèle’s disappearance is a sign of a crime at all. But many years ago, as a rookie detective, Gorski failed to bring the murderer of another young girl to justice and this haunts him, so he is determined this time to ensure that the killer of Adèle (if she has been killed) will not escape.

This compelling book falls very definitely on the literary side of crime fiction while never feeling pretentious or overdone. The central mystery of Adèle’s disappearance is intriguing but is almost peripheral – the real meat of the story is in the slow reveal of the characters of the two men, detective and suspect: both brought up in this rather dead-end, grey town, both outwardly successful in their careers but both inwardly feeling that somehow they haven’t achieved their early ambitions, both haunted for different reasons by an event from many years earlier. The careful depiction of the town is so authentic that it feels as if it must exist and that the Restaurant de la Cloche is a real place where the regulars are real people who really gather each night to bicker over the news of the day.

There is a strange device employed whereby the book is credited to one Raymond Brunet, translated into English by Graeme Macrae Burnet. Because of Burnet’s success as an author, especially with his Booker-nominated His Bloody Project, a reader coming to it now realises this is an obvious fiction, although it is presented quite credibly and if I hadn’t heard of the author before I may well have fallen for it, not noticing the similarity in the names. (Having done my usual thing of reading the second book in this duology first – The Accident on the A35 – I knew going in how this aspect would be developed in the next book, but wondered what I’d have made of it if I’d read this one first. It may have struck me as an unnecessary and slightly pretentious device, so I do think it’s important to see these books as halves of a whole, although storywise each stands on its own as complete.)

Brunet, Burnet and Inspector Gorski all admit to the influence of Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels, the first two as writers and Gorski as having been inspired to become a detective by reading the books. I’ve read a few Maigret books but am not really well enough acquainted with his work to judge how well Burnet catches the tone, so I defer to better read reviewers who seem to feel he’s done it very well. The mood is noir, but as I said in my review of the other book, the drabness of St Louis makes it a faded noir – grey rather than black.

The writing is wonderful, both in the physical descriptions and in the depth of characterisation. Told in the third person we are nevertheless allowed deep inside the minds of the two men, and both are interesting. Despite a failing marriage and a stalled career, Gorski is basically a contented man who feels he has found his level. It may not be the level he once hoped he would reach and he may still harbour dreams that one day he’ll do something to impress people, but he’s comfortable in his own skin. The same is not true of Baumann. An outsider all his life, he thinks obsessively about how other people see him and as he feels suspicion surrounding him becomes almost paranoic, thinking that he’s being watched not just by the police but by the people of the town. He may be right – we see this through his eyes so we have only his impressions to go on. As the book progresses we learn more about the experiences that have formed Baumann, and I found myself having a great deal of sympathy for him while simultaneously finding him repellent. Truly an excellent creation – believable as the kind of man any of us may know and yet ultimately unknowable, even to himself.

Graeme Macrae Burnet

Adèle disappears not just from St Louis but from the book. She is never developed as a character, deliberately, her only importance existing in her absence. Her mystery exists mostly in her blankness – one feels that if she had never disappeared, she would never have been noticed at all. There seem to be no grief-stricken relatives and her job at the restaurant is soon filled. Even her boyfriend barely knew her. And Gorski, though he tries not to admit it, is somewhat hopeful that she has indeed been killed, giving him the opportunity to make his mark and make things right with his conscience by finally solving a murder.

I’d be hard put to choose between the books in the duo – both are excellent individually and together they become something really quite special and, in my opinion, unique in crime writing. I recommend them both highly and hope that Burnet will continue to blur the boundaries of literary and genre fiction in his future work.

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33 thoughts on “The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet

    • The creation of the town is wonderful – I feel as if I could find my way around it and would be nodding to people I recognised every time I entered a café! I’m going to get up a protest movement if he doesn’t publish something else soon… 😉

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  1. Oh, I’ve been wanting to read this, FictionFan! I really liked The Accident…, and I remember about the whole author thing. It’s interesting to know how that’s dealt with here. I couldn’t agree more, too, about the writing style. It’s literary, but doesn’t get too pretentious or get caught in itself (I can’t really put it better than that; I hope you understand my meaning). I’ve had this one on the wish list for a bit now, and I’m glad to be reminded that I still haven’t got to it. *Nervous look at tottering TBR pile…*

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    • Ha – it had been sitting on my own TBR pile for at least a couple of years so I sympathise! Yes, it’s hard to say exactly why they have a literary feel because he sticks to getting the story out with considerably less padding than a lot of less literary crime fiction. I think it must just be the depth of the setting – it feels as if he’s built it brick by brick – and the concentration on characterisation. Whatever it is, I hope he’s writing more of it! 😀

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    • Ha! For one reason or another I had loads of time off from blogging at the end of last year so had built up a huge backlog of reviews – so I don’t really get through them as quickly as it’s seeming at the moment… 😉 These are perfect for me because the two things I look for most in mysteries is a great setting and believable characterisation… 😀

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    • I also liked that he acknowledged his debt to Maigret inside the book itself – a nice touch! Yes, it’s hard to be literary in crime fiction without it becoming pretentious, but he manages it – hope he’s writing more!

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  2. You make this sound VERY appealing! But…. I must quit adding to my TBR until I made some headway with what’s already there. Good thing I don’t keep track of numbers as closely as you do! I’d be doomed. 😉

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    • I just checked at my library app and they have this, but not the first book. Based on what you said about it being good on its own, I went ahead and tagged it for my wish list. 🙄 (better there than the actual TBR!)

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      • Haha – wishlist numbers count too! 😉 I’ve loved all three of the books he’s written so far but this duology even beats his Booker nominated one as far as I’m concerned. This one actually is the first in the duology – I read them the wrong way round as usual. Storywise each can be read as a standalone, but the little overarching story arc makes it well worth reading them in order. And they’re both quite short, so you’ll have no problem fitting them in… 📚📚📚

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  3. Are you saying the “victim” Adele never shows up at all? Not even in death? And nobody seems to care one way or another? Hm, I think I’d find this disturbing. I rather like my crime and mystery stories to wrap up nicely, preferably with a huge green ribbon!!

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    • Aha – hmm, see, can’t really answer that without it being spoilery! 😂 I’ll merely say that it’s all finished off quite satisfyingly in the end, though not necessarily in the way you’d expect. There, isn’t that intriguing? 😉

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  4. As it happens, an offline friend recommended Graeme Macrae Burnet to me the other day, so the fact you like him too means I will probably start reading him sooner rather than later. Would this one be a good place to start?

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    • Yes, I’d say this is the best one to start with, then The Accident on the A35. His Bloody Project is a standalone and is also very good – many people like it best, in fact, but for me this duology is just about perfection in literary crime writing… 😀

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    • I loved His Bloody Project too, but marginally I actually preferred this duology – the setting is wonderfully done, and in both books I felt as if I knew the characters inside out – and even more importantly, believed in them…

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  5. I am glad you enjoyed this one as well. Excellent review. I absolutely loved the Disappearance of Adele Bedeau and I completely agree with you that Burnet’s descriptions and characterisations are brilliant. I thought the language was also very nuanced and it read just wonderfully. As for His Bloody Project, I found there that the author relied too much on Camus’ The Outsider – at least conceptually, so it felt like I was reading the reworking of that novel. Of course, the Disappearance may also be seen as very heavily Simenon-inspired, but that book still felt rather special somehow. I plan to review Burnet’s The Accident on the A35 this month, and I already fear that I will not like it as much as his debut.

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    • I haven’t read The Outsider, so didn’t make that connection, but I felt that the boy’s story was told in too good English for a poor uneducated Scot of that time and place. I’m sure it only irritated me because I’m Scottish – I fully understand why Scots’ writers don’t want to put non-Scots off by including a lot of Scots dialect, but I felt it was a missed opportunity. Otherwise I thought it was great, but I actually preferred these Gorski books overall – I thought the setting was done superbly. I think I actually enjoyed The Accident on the A35 even more than this one… hope you’re not disappointed in it!

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      • I think whole sentences were taken from The Outsider and put into His Bloody Project, and the endings and the demeanour of the main characters are virtually the same – there are many connections. I agree with you that the account of the main character reads like it was penned by an educated and knowledgeable person and I would not have minded Scottish dialect because it would have been more authentic. I am now reading The Accident on the A35 and I am loving it, even though it is a bit slow.

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        • Glad you’re loving The Accident on the A35. though it’s taken me so long to reply to your comment you may well have finished it by now! 😉 It’s always a tricky decision about dialect – some readers don’t mind it but lots of readers find it really off-putting.

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