Burnet, Graeme Macrae. The Accident on the A35. Melbourne, Australia: Text Publishing, 2017. RRP: $30.00. 272pp. ISBN: 9781925603057
There’s something distinctly Hitchcockian about Graeme Macrae Burnet’s novels, the Scottish writer carving his own path as a master of suspense in his previous works The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau and the Man Booker-shortlisted His Bloody Project.
Perhaps it’s a symptom of emerging from the Scottish literary culture that produced the likes of Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and Christopher Brookmyre, and engendered the term Tartan Noir, used to describe the glut of incredible crime fiction that seems to spill from that nation. But Macrae Burnet has proved himself in a class of his own, forgoing the gristle, gore and ‘whodunnit’ style of some of his contemporaries in favour of a more subtle, literary kind of fiction that engages and enthrals.
Tying in somewhat to The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau (his excellent first novel), Burnet returns to Chief Inspector Georges Gorski and the sleepy French village of St Louis in The Accident on the A35, creating a novel that is both unnerving and highly entertaining.
Prominent lawyer Bertrand Barthelme is killed in a car accident on the A35. Gorski assumes it’s a routine case, but a visit to the dead man’s widow arouses his suspicions that there may be more to this ‘accident’ than meets the eye. He isn’t the only one that thinks there’s something amiss, as Barthelme’s son Raymond takes it upon himself to find out what secrets his cold, unapproachable father might have been keeping.
On the surface this is a crime thriller through and through, Macrae Burnet’s plot is immaculate, his characterisation seeped in detail and his language accessible but evocative. As in previous novels, he uses the ‘found manuscript’ device, claiming himself as the editor and translator of the original pages written by the fictional (or is he?) Raymond Brunet. It’s another nod to Scottish literary tradition, harking back to the dark, unsettling narrative of James Hogg’s Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.
The plot doesn’t fire along, as you’d perhaps expect from a crime thriller, but rather uses a slow burn of detail to light the gunpowder a long way out from the dynamite. The result is incredibly satisfying, with the reader left in raptured suspense as incident after incident adds to the final, truly shocking, reveal.
This book would excel if it were nothing but a crime novel, but there’s something deeper to this tale that tugs at the conscience and unravels among the mystery. Character is Macrae Burnet’s forte, and here it is the minutiae of these figures that unearth a commentary on social difference and class divides that runs beneath the mystery.
Nowhere is this more apparent in the character of Raymond Barthelme, a socially, sexually and emotionally inept seventeen-year-old who stands on the knife-edge of manhood without knowing how to tip himself fully into adulthood.
In one of his first exchanges with Delph (a streetwise waitress) his childlike antagonism highlights his emotional immaturity.
‘“Is there something wrong with your tea?” She was holding a tray under her arm. Her left foot swivelled on its heel as before, giving the impression that she was annoyed or impatient.
“My tea? No, it’s fine,” Raymond replied. “I prefer to drink it cold.”
Then, as if to prove his point, he raised it to his lips and drank with exaggerated relish.’ (106)
His sexual immaturity becomes apparent in his failed attempt to have sex with her.
‘She took his penis in her hand and attempted to guide it into her sex, but he spent himself on the inside of her thigh as soon as she touched him. He attempted to disguise this by thrusting his hips between her legs in the way that he had seen actors do in certain films, but his erection quickly subsided. Delph made it clear that she found his efforts unsatisfactory.’ (161)
In this, as in Burnet’s other writing, character is used to exemplify the contrast between different social classes and social experiences. Raymond, although a member of the town’s elite, is socially inept. Delph, raised by a single mother and working as a waitress, is socially adept. She knows how to deal with life and the wide variety of people she encounters in it, while Raymond at seventeen still can’t muster up the emotional maturity required to have an adult conversation.
Their relationship works in tandem with that of Gorski and his wife, Céline, a highly strung woman in the upper levels of society who is clearly socially savvy. Gorski is a hard-working but ambitious policeman, who is conscious of his modest tastes and lower social status. When the pair meet in the humble Restaurant de la Cloche, the resulting dinner shows Gorski’s awareness of the difference between them; ‘The wine was dreadfully sweet. Céline would pull a face when she tried it.’ (212)
Céline is two hours late to their rendezvous, and Gorski eats without her, thinking he has been stood up.
‘Gorski was wiping the remains of the pepper sauce from the corner of his mouth when Céline made her appearance … She did not see Gorski – or pretended not to – obliging him to raise his hand to attract her attention … She looked at the bottle on the table and then at Gorski’s empty plate.
“How good of you to wait for me,” she said.
She allowed him to kiss her on both cheeks.’ (215)
This power play between husband and wife, upper class and lower is one of the greatest subtleties of this novel.
What Macrae Burnet has created here, whether he intended to or not, is a commentary on the fact that crime is not classless, that it is possible to err in judgement and action no matter who you are. This commentary is just one incredibly deft layer that the writer has woven into this tale, and the book is all the better for it.
Jen is a writer and journalist based in Perth. She lived and worked in Edinburgh, Scotland for ten years and has written for a number of UK newspapers and magazines including The List, The Guardian and The Scotsman. Previously Arts and Events Editor of Scoop Events, she now works in the marketing team at Fremantle Press.