For one brief shining moment, the Man Booker committee’s steadfast opposition to putting crime fiction into contention for the prize had been broken. After a slew of enthusiastic reviews, Graeme MacRae Burnet’s His Bloody Project – a highly unorthodox literary experiment, but a crime novel all the same – was, to the surprise of many, nominated for the award. Needless to say, it didn’t win, but there was a corollary benefit for Burnet and his bijou-sized publisher Contraband: the novel became a massively popular critical and sales success.
Burnet’s novel, concerning a savage triple killing in a cloistered Scottish Highland community – with its fragmentary structure and variety of perspectives – created at least one inevitable effect: a keen appetite for the next book by the author. And now we have that successor, The Accident on the A35 – but has Burnet matched his earlier achievement? The answer to that question is not straightforward.
The book is a sequel to Burnet’s first novel, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, which was a far more conventional crime piece than the Man Booker nominee that followed it. The earlier book was a testament to Burnet’s admiration for the French master Georges Simenon’s Maigret, with a similarly low-key detective at the centre of the narrative (not to mention a vividly evoked provincial French setting, some distance from the Francophile author’s native Kilmarnock). There were signs of Burnet’s later experimentation – readers were told was that he was only the translator of this novel, which had been (apparently) written by a jaded French writer called Raymond Brunet. Investigating the disappearance of the eponymous Adèle was the downtrodden inspector Gorski, who, unlike Maigret, was not respected by his men.
The new book, once again set in France, follows the events resulting from a fatal car crash on the A35. Inspector Gorski, treated with thinly veiled contempt by his estranged wife, becomes concerned with the movements of the dead man, a sober lawyer called Barthelme. What can explain the secretive relationship he had with a group of tight-lipped friends? As the inhabitants of the small French backwater town in which Barthelme lived attempt to draw a veil over the dead man’s movements, it soon becomes apparent that he – and the town – had dark secrets to conceal.
While the new book (once again purportedly by Brunet) is more straightforward in its use of detective story tropes, there is still evidence here that Burnet is impatient with the parameters of the form – notably the fragmentary structure. The dead man’s son, Raymond, is a skilfully drawn character in his own right — rebellious, sexually inhibited and unable to provide the outward forms of anguish that a grieving son is obliged to show (one senses that Camus’ The Outsider is in the mix here along with Monsieur Maigret). And far more than most crime novels, this is very much a novel of character — particularly of the wistful but tenacious Gorski. And provided readers are not expecting something as strikingly unusual as His Bloody Project, The Accident on the A35 affords a variety of quiet and satisfying pleasures, though its temperature is on the low side. Perhaps Burnet can get back to quirky experimentation in book four?
The Accident on the A35
by Graeme MacRae Burnet
Contraband, £12.99, 258 pages