‘Both of Graeme Macrae Burnet’s main characters – Gorski and Raymond – are pushed to extremes, tested almost to destruction.’
Since readers were first introduced to Detective Inspector Georges Gorski in The Disappearance of Adle Bedeau in 2014, the fortunes of both his creator, Graeme Macrae Burnet, and the book’s publisher, Saraband, have been transformed. Being the best-seller on the 2016 Man Booker shortlist and winner of the Saltire prize for Novel of the Year tends to have that effect: it also leaves thousands of readers worldwide eagerly anticipating what Burnet is going to write next.
The answer is The Accident on the A35, which Contraband publishes on 26 October. It takes us back to the claustrophobically small town of Saint-Louis in Alsace in which the first book was set, reintroduces us to Gorski (who is now chief of police) and gets briskly under way with an investigation of the fatal car crash of the title, in which a lawyer whom no-one liked is killed in unsuspicious circumstances.
There is a lot more to it, as one would expect from the literary games-master Burnet has proved himself to be in both his previous novels, but let’s leave that to one side for now. Instead, let’s begin with the moment when Gorski turns up at the lawyer’s house to report the accidental death.
It’s a quarter to midnight. The door is opened by a suspicious housekeeper. She needs persuading, but eventually tells Gorski that the lawyer’s wife will receive him in her boudoir. She is attractive. Ringlets frame her heart-shaped face and her night-dress hangs so loosely round her chest that Gorski has to avert his eyes. We, the readers, do not avert ours. We know where this is going, because that’s where it always goes when you have a hard-working, hard-drinking cop whose own wife has just left him (tick, tick, tick) who meets an attractive woman who asks him to find out more about her husband’s death.
Gorski then goes next door to talk to the woman’s son. And this is where Burnet slips out of the crime genre into literary fiction. He’ll spend the rest of the novel criss-crossing between the two, but this time is the only occasion in which that happens in adjoining rooms.
In his bedroom, 17-year-old Raymond Barthelme is reading Sartre’s novel The Age of Reason. His schoolfriend told him Sartre himself used to like to sit on a straight-backed chair while reading, so he has dragged one to the middle of the room. On it, Raymond is reading the scene from the book in which a character, drunk and in a nightclub, demonstrates her total freedom by cutting the palm of her hand with a knife. There will be enough references to Sartre’s novel in this one to keep a PhD student happily toiling away for years on such a thesis: the fact that it has a character called Brunet, the name of the supposed author of this novel (Burnet himself pretending to be no more than its translator) will, presumably, be worth a chapter at least. And there will indeed, at some later point, be a scene in a nightclub with drunkenness and much blood.
If all of this were just showing off by doing metafictional wheelies, it would hardly be worth mentioning. What matters far more than is whether this set-up feels believable. And yes, it does. Seventeen-year-olds tend to be fascinated by entry-level existentialism because it, like them, is fascinated by the possibilities of freedom. So I’d accept that a bright boy like Raymond would be reading a scene like that one in The Age of Reason to discuss it with his two closest schoolfriends the next day. I’d accept that he’d try to copy Sartre by sitting in an uncomfortable chair in the middle of the room. And I’d accept that, when young Raymond answers the door to the policeman, he would feel bit guilty, because the chair in the middle of his bedroom does indeed look odd. Being a bright boy, he’s already heard the housekeeper answer the front door, knows that no-one rings the doorbell at a quarter to midnight unless there’s bad news, so he’s guessed that there has probably been some kind of accident, and he hopes that it has been a serious one, because his repressive, controlling father is the one great obstacle to his own freedom in this bourgeois backwater.
None of this is laboriously spelt out, but it all feels exactly right. Everything I have described takes place within a handful of pages and most of the details rush by, without emphasis, between commas. I mention them only because just the other day I was thinking about that moment when you realise you are reading a good book, one that you’ll actually be surprised if it turns out to be a disappointment.
For me, it’s all about those two bedrooms. From underneath the door of the first, out snakes a plot that is always going to head towards sex and death. There will be a femme fatale, a crime passionel, and cynical cops putting the world to right, one corpse at a time, with reassuring ingenuity: enjoyable enough if done right, the way a jigsaw puzzle or a crossword is. From underneath the door of the second bedroom, though, comes a plot that is altogether less predictable, more complex and easier to derail, as Raymond sets off to find out more about his dead father. Here, what matters most is psychological realism, the easiest thing in the world to get wrong as it vanishes the moment that reader starts having doubts about whether the characters really would act, in small things as well as big, the way they do.
What’s impressive about Burnet’s new novel is the way in which even though both of his main characters – Gorski and Raymond – are pushed to extremes, tested almost to destruction, their interior lives remain credible throughout. Mad, or blurred with drink, or both, but definitely credible. Which takes some doing.
That moment when you know you’re reading a good book is like the moment when you know you’re watching a good film. You’ve caught the actor expresses an emotion in a way that isn’t just acting but is entirely recognisable from everyday life. If we were actors, or film directors, we’d want just such a moment in our own film. It’s the same with a book. We’d want, in the novels we never will write, to have the kind of psychological realism Burnet sprinkles throughout this book like icing sugar on a cake. If His Bloody Project was all about how little one can see inside the minds of the main protagonists, The Accident on the A35 is about how much, and how credibly.
Burnet adds another layer of complexity by suggesting that this is an autobiographical novel written by one of its characters. I don’t think it even needs this extra ornamentation. It already reads like a lavishly detailed, psychologically accurate, intelligent, well-plotted, unsimple Simenon. And isn’t that enough for anybody?
The Accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet is published by Contraband, and imprint of Saraband, on 26 October, priced £12.99. You can listen to an audio extract from The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau here on Books from Scotland.