Book review: The Accident on the A35, by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Ostensibly Graeme Macrae Burnet is not the author, but only the translator, of his novel. It was, he says, published in France more than 20 years after its author, Raymond Brunet, had killed himself, and after the much later death of Brunet's mother. Brunet, one may note, was also the author of the first novel published under Burnet's name. Well, anyone might be taken in by Burnet's explanatory foreword, though even the most gullible reader might wonder about the near coincidence of the names.

Graeme Macrae Burnet PIC: John Devlin

If this is the sort of thing you like – and I do – you will be at least amused, and you will be pleased to find that the game-playing goes a step further: for it may well be that the putative author Brunet is also the young Raymond Barthelme, one of the two principal characters in the novel. This – Burnet suggests – may account for the long gap between its writing and publication, Brunet having left instructions with his lawyer that the manuscript should not be sent to his publisher during his mother’s lifetime.

On the face of it we have a conventional mystery. It begins with the death of Raymond’s father in what seems to be an ordinary road accident. However, the underworked Inspector Gorski, chief of police in the drab little Alsatian town of St-Louis, has his doubts.

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Why was the dead man, a prominent lawyer, on that road? Why did he lie to his wife, saying that he was at the dinner of a little club which met every Tuesday? The club, Gorski discovers, does not exist. So what was he up to?

Meanwhile Raymond, a boy of 17, who had never been on good terms with his father, and who, rather late in the day, is obsessed with Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel The Age of Reason, and fancies himself as an existentialist, has also started snooping. He finds the address of a house in the rue Saint-Fiacre in Mulhouse on a piece of paper in his father’s desk, and, naturally, wonders about its significance. He takes the train to Mulhouse and lurks in the street.

Then Gorski reads a newspaper report of the murder of a women in Strasbourg, wonders if Barthelme might have been taking the A35 back from there, and rather timidly gets in touch with the considerably more flamboyant policeman in charge of that case.

This then is the set-up, intriguing enough. The novel is, very clearly, influenced by Simenon. Indeed in its evocation of apparently ordinary, rather drab lives in the apparently ordinary and decidedly drab little town of St-Louis, it might be fairly called an act of homage to Simenon. Even the name of the street where Raymond lurks and where he commits one of those impulsive unreasonable acts which Simenon’s characters so often are drawn to, and are unable to explain, is taken from a novel in which Maigret investigates a crime in the village where he grew up. Moreover, the murder that Gorski finds himself led to investigate – the killing of a call-girl – belongs in Maigret territory, while Raymond is the sort of nebulous unfocussed youth, with pretentions to being an intellectual yet acting on impulses for which he can’t account, who crops up repeatedly in Simenon’s novels, perhaps in the “romans durs” more often than the Maigret ones.

One might therefore be tempted to call The Accident on the A35 pastiche Simenon; fair enough, adding only that it is good pastiche.

It’s slow, atmospheric, often surprising, with a denouement which is beautifully under-played. One should also say it is daring, for it is rash to venture into the territory of a master-novelist.

The rashness is, however, rewarded for the author brings enough that is different and individual to his treatment of place and theme to go beyond pastiche and create something that is also distinctively his own, his Gorski for instance being diffident, uncertain of himself, very different from Maigret.

I found it enjoyable, a very nice piece of craftsmanship, and hope that Burnet may yet discover other unpublished novels by the hitherto obscure Raymond Brunet.■

*The Accident on the A35, by Graeme Macrae Burnet, Contraband, 258pp, £12.99