“The smaller the town, the more inward-looking its residents.”
The Accident on the A35, by Graeme Macrae Burnet, returns the reader to the small French border town of Saint-Louis where the author’s debut novel, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, was set. Now being described as a series, this latest work focuses on an investigation being carried out by Chief Inspector Georges Gorski, the head of the town’s police force. An eminent and austere lawyer, Bertrand Barthelme, is found dead in his car following what looks like a road traffic accident. His attractive widow, Lucette, asks Gorski to look into why her husband had been driving in a location that made no sense given where he had told her he would be that evening. Lucette had understood that he dined at a club every Tuesday after work, and had done so for as long as she could remember.
The story is told from two points of view: Gorski, and the lawyer’s teenage son, Raymond. At seventeen the boy is trying to establish his desired persona. He carries with him books he believes will impress his peers. He discusses Sartre and experiences a frisson of excitement when considering self-harm – the drawing of blood to shock and rebel.
Gorski is still coming to terms with his wife leaving him. He enjoys the freedom he now has to drink heavily whenever he chooses but misses her company despite their mutual irritations. Attracted to Barthelme’s widow, he agrees to look into her husband’s whereabouts on the evening of the lawyer’s death. He uncovers a potential link to a murder investigation in Strasbourg.
Raymond, meanwhile, finds a scrap of paper containing a scribbled address in a desk drawer in his father’s study. He sets out to uncover who lives there and if his father visited the night he died. Distracted by a girl, Raymond allows himself to act in ways he has never before dared. He is pleased with the change in himself despite antipathy triggered.
“In Saint-Louis, it is frowned upon to have good posture, or to walk purposefully along the street as if one is in control of one’s own destiny. If asked how one’s business is doing, the customary response is: ‘Could be worse,’ or ‘Just about surviving.’ Anything more upbeat is reckoned insufferable boasting.”
The evocation of small town life includes the suggestion of casual racism and homophobia – an acknowledgement that such prejudices exist within groups and are generally overlooked or accepted by acquaintances. The attitudes of the police are affected by an individual’s demeanour and social standing. There is a desire for admiration, especially from those regarded as superior.
The writing is taut and accomplished with character studies a key feature. Although somewhat heavy on description, the plot moves along at an engaging pace. Certain male habits, true to life and serving a purpose in the narrative, were distasteful to read. The men are drawn more vividly than the women, whose supporting role is largely based around sexual attraction.
Readers who enjoyed Adèle Bedeau will likely relish this sequel. I enjoyed it to an extent but with reservations. While welcoming the original take on crime fiction and the frequent dark humour, I couldn’t get past my dislike of prurient detail. However well formed the characters, there are certain personal habits I prefer not to consider.
The Accident on the A35 is published by Contraband.