The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Opposite and equal…

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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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The Accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet

When the ordinary becomes extraordinary…

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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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His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

The quality of madness…

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One day in 1869, young Roderick Macrae walked along the tiny street of his village and brutally murdered three of his neighbours. He is now in custody awaiting trial, and his defence lawyer is trying to get at the root causes that led him to commit these horrific crimes.

The novel is presented as if it were a true crime book with witness statements, medical examiner reports and so on. The first half is taken up with Roderick’s own account of events leading up to the crime, an account he is writing while in jail, at the urging of Mr Sinclair, his defence attorney. There’s then a shorter section told from the viewpoint of J. Bruce Thomson, an authority in the new discipline of criminal anthropology. He has been brought in by Mr Sinclair to determine whether Roderick could be considered insane under the legal definition of that word then in force. J. Bruce Thomson was a real person, as the notes at the end of the book tell us, and Burnet has apparently used his actual writings on the subject to inform this section of the book. Finally, there’s an account of the trial, presented as a kind of compilation of various newspaper reports.

The quality of the writing is excellent and the structure works surprisingly well. I’ll get my major criticism out of the way first: I found it impossible to believe that a 17-year-old crofter living in a tiny, isolated and dirt-poor community in the Scottish highlands at this period could possibly be as literate and eloquent as Roderick is in his own written account. Apart from just the excellent grammar and extensive vocabulary, he writes in standard English throughout, which would absolutely not have been how he spoke. Burnet is clearly aware of this problem, so shoves in a bit about how Roderick was a kind of prodigy at school who could have gone on to further education if circumstances had allowed, but I’m afraid this wasn’t enough to convince. My minor, related criticism is that this also means the book makes no attempt to reproduce Scottish dialect or speech patterns – a bonus, I imagine, for the non-Scots reader but a disappointment for this Scot.

However, the storytelling is first-rate and Burnet creates a completely convincing picture of crofting life at this period – a life of hard work and poverty, where the crofters’ living was entirely dependant on the whim of the local laird. He shows the various powers who held sway over the crofters – the factor who was the laird’s main representative, the constable, elected by the crofters to enforce a kind of discipline among them, and the minister of the harsh and unforgiving Scottish church. And he shows how easily these people could browbeat, bully and abuse those under their power, who had no rights to assert and no power to protest. The section supposedly written by J. Bruce Thomson gives a great insight into contemporary thinking on insanity, particularly as regards the effects of heredity and of in-breeding in these tiny communities.

The trial also feels authentic, especially the various extracts from newspapers which include word sketches of how the witnesses and the accused appeared to those in the courtroom. The reader has slightly more information than the jury, because we have had the opportunity to read Roderick’s account. But when the jury retires to consider its verdict, the jurors and the reader are left debating the same question of criminality versus insanity, and Burnet has carefully balanced the picture so that it’s not an easy question to answer.

I found it an absorbing read with a great marriage of interesting storyline and well presented research. As a character study, Roderick is fascinating – indeed, his whole family are. There are all kinds of hints of things that are never fully revealed or clarified, all of which add to the uncertainty of Roderick’s motivation; and the structure allows us to see him both as he chooses to present himself and from the viewpoints of the many other people who come into contact with him. I felt Burnet got just about a perfect balance between letting us feel we knew Roderick and reminding us that we can never fully understand what’s going on in someone else’s head – lots of lovely ambiguity.

Graeme Macrae Burnet

The book was shortlisted for the Booker and, to be honest, I can’t quite see why. It’s very well written and interesting and I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see it winning crime or historical fiction awards, but I don’t feel it’s particularly ‘literary’ or brings anything hugely original to the table. This is not to criticise the book – it’s more a criticism of the Booker, which seems to have lost its way fairly dramatically over the last few years. Had Burnet taken that extra leap of courage to use at least some Scots rather than go for the easy (and more marketable) option of standard English throughout, then perhaps it would have taken it up that notch that would be needed to raise it from excellent to exceptional.

But excellent it is, and it would be unfair to rate it otherwise because it doesn’t quite live up to the unrealistic expectations the Booker shortlisting has created. As a historical crime novel, then – highly recommended.

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