Compelling hunt for a terrible truth
The Accident On The A35 GRAEME MACRAE BURNET Contraband, £12.99
AS with The Disappearance Of Adele Bedeau, the first in a trilogy of French detective novels, of which The Accident On The A35 is second, Macrae Burnet is merely the translator of the work by deceased French novelist, Raymond Brunet. Just like His Bloody Project, shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker, where Macrae Burnet was merely the presenter of another’s words, the author occupies a much more innocent position. He’s no puppet-master pulling characters’ strings.
Except, of course, that he always is. The “death of the author” takes on a neat twist when Macrae Burnet’s name lights up the cover, only for him to retreat behind his “real” author, Raymond Brunet (the Frenchman’s surname a nice anagram of Burnet, too). This postmodern playfulness with “truth” informs all Macrae Burnet’s work to date and the seeking-out of the “truth” is what underpins a murder mystery like His Bloody Project, or a detective novel. Who committed the crime, how and why: the raison d’être of the detective novel is to answer those questions.
So begins the fun in this truly superlative tale, because we don’t even know if a crime has been committed. As in The Disappearance Of Adele Bedeau, Inspector Georges Gorski is our seeker of “truth”. A car has crashed on the A35 between Strasbourg and Saint-Louis, where Gorski lives and works. The driver, Bertrand Barthelme, is killed outright. At the scene, Gorski notes extensive scratch marks down one side of the car, as though it had been dragged before righting itself. When Barthelme’s beautiful widow asks Gorski to investigate, he agrees, partly to satisfy his own curiosity, partly because he finds himself attracted to her.
The dead man’s son, Raymond, is also disturbed by his father’s untimely death, but for different reasons. Never close to his father, he prefers to read Sartre and conduct intellectual arguments with his two schoolfriends, Yvette and Stephane. But after he finds a strange address in his late father’s desk, he begins an investigation of his own. Both Raymond and Gorski are looking for an answer to the same question, if for different reasons: what was Bertrand Barthelme doing on the night of the car crash? The outcome of their question will affect each differently, of course. And that outcome will show the reader that the story she thought she was following isn’t the story she was following at all.
This play with outcomes and investigations means that parallels are inevitably drawn between the detective and the writer of detective fiction, but they are drawn by Gorski’s unreliable and corrupt counterpart in Strasbourg, Chief Inspector Lambert. It’s Lambert who tells Gorksi confidently: “You think police work is all about brain work. It’s not. It’s about telling a story.” Gorski replies that whatever Lambert comes up with might make for a good story, but “that doesn’t make it true”. Unlike Gorski, Lambert has little interest in the “truth”. He tries to make the details of a crime scene fit a particular scenario; Gorski wants to avoid that method.
And yet, that is the essence of the detective novel. Details combine to construct a picture, tell a story. What is particularly fascinating about what takes place in the writing of The Accident On The A35 though is how the details operate differently from their usual function in the genre. Details disturb us in crime fiction: they provide grisly forensics into the method of killing, or psychological insight into a madman’s methods. It’s the detective who restores our equilibrium, who settles and domesticates those details with his discovery of the “truth”.
What happens here is just the opposite. Details reassure in this detective novel. They reassure Raymond later in the novel, as they almost literally ground him. “He became aware of an assortment of footwear around where he lay on the floor. He recognised the black slip-ons of the pockmarked man …” They reassure Gorski because they point the way to the “truth”. What disturbs in this novel is something else entirely: the possible absence of a crime. Surely though, the absence of a crime should be reassuring in itself, we wonder? But for the detective novel, no crime means no search for an answer, and no search means no-one searching for one. Without a crime, the detective and the novel both cease to exist.
And that is where our real fear lies. You could argue that the urge to justify its existence, to help us fight that fear of non-existence, permeates The Accident On The A35. Its
pared-back prose, so redolent of Macrae Burnet’s literary hero Georges Simenon, is comforting in its solidity; the slow dissolution of Gorski’s marriage is eased by Mme Barthelme’s attraction for him; his elderly mother’s forgetfulness is counterpointed by Gorski’s retrieval of the past. Even the terrible discovery that young Raymond Barthelme makes is one that fights absence, for in its discovery lies the “truth”. A “truth” that cannot comfort, but which may justify the novel’s existence, and in doing so provides another kind of comfort altogether.
The Accident On The A35 is not only one of the most clever and compelling novels to be published this year. It also understands that what makes a narrative necessary and pleasurable, is what also makes life necessary and pleasurable. Life may be terrible at times; our nearest and dearest may lie to us, or leave us. But it is life and not oblivion and that is what counts.
Graeme Macrae Burnet’s translation of The Accident on the A35 retains Raymond Brunet’s compelling tale of the hunt for ‘truth’.