Graeme Macrae Burnet came to my attention through the Booker Prize: I loved his His Bloody Project novel with its multiple voices and setting, evocatively recreating the brutality of life in Scottish crofting communities. It was on the strength of that that I picked up this, the first of his Detective Gorski novels and – I think – his debut novel.
It’s an odd book!
And Macrae Burnet does subvert his form throughout. He presents this novel, as he does His Bloody Project, as a found novel claiming to be nothing more than the translator – a technique which adds… I don’t know what to the narrative. Nothing discernible save for a second layer of narrative in the ‘Translator’s Afterword’ where we are told not to draw any connections between Baumann and the alleged author “Raymond Brunet” despite the fact that Macrae Burnet goes to the effort of adding parallels in order to tell us to ignore them. Additionally, as a detective novel, whilst we certainly are presented with a detective, we may be left wondering whether just has been served or not.
And, indeed, whether a crime has been committed at all.
The plot, such as it is, is that Adèle Bedeau, a young waitress at the Restaurant de la Cloche which Baumann frequents, disappears one evening. In her brief appearance in the novel, she appears to be a vibrant contrast to the mundanity of the rest of Saint-Louis, which Macrae Burnet describes as
a place of little note and aside from a handful of the picturesque oak-beamed houses characteristic of the region, there is little to detain visitors. Like most border towns, it is a place of transit. People pass through on their way elsewhere, and the town is so lacking in points of interest it is as if the townsfolk have resigned themselves to this. The brighter young people of Saint-Louis up and leave for college, most likely never to return.
It seems like a place many young women might be keen to escape from! But she has not packed, did not leave her job. Questions were to be answered, and Inspector Gorski was tasked to ask them Some of those questions came to rest on Manfred Baumann.
In addition to this was an historic case, one of Gorski’s first, in which a vagrant had been convicted of the murder of Juliette Hurel two decades previously. Whilst he liked to reject instinct and intuition, preferring procedure and evidence, which seems entirely reasonable, Gorski comes to believe that these two investigations are connected in some way, even though “in all likelihood, the only connection between to two crimes was Gorski himself”.
I’ve already commented on Susan Hill’s comment that the detective novel has come of age and is ripe to be classed as literary – an opinion I recall one of my University lecturers saying around 1995. I think Burnet is a better example of this than Hill: as a literary novel, it explores the characters in his little town of Saint-Louis in depth; Hill, on the other hand, tends to shoehorn in a plethora of examples circling a theme.
And Macrae Burnet’s characters are weird! Manfred Baumann, his main character, is isolated, reclusive, obsessive and – as other characters say – gives you the creeps. Macrae Burnet’s writing is very “interior”, as it was in His Bloody Project: we are privy to the internal monologues and meanderings of his characters and Baumann’s obsessive reinterpretations of what people have said and done, his evaluation and assessment of his own actions. Whilst never stated, elements of his behaviour might imply that he sits somewhere on the autistic spectrum: his inability to escape the habits and routines he has created, his social awkwardness, his lack of comprehension of societal norms.
I found myself sympathising with him. Actually, felt positively sorry for him.
Inspector Gorski, himself, is actually very similar to Baumann. The bluster and confidence we are used to seeing in the detective in our detective novels is evaporated as we have every misgiving, concern and worry that Gorski verbalises to us.
One thing that did irk, and which brought me out of the story a lot, was Macrae Burnett – or at least his characters’ – attitude to women. I found myself rolling my eyes, commenting to my wife that “You can tell this was written by a man”. She rolled her eyes far more. Breasts are the focus of both our point-of-view characters: the eponymous Adèle Bedeau
was a dark, heavy-set girl with a wide behind and large, weighty breasts;
Gorski’s wife Céline
was half a head taller than Gorski, willowy, with small breasts and slim hips;
a classmate of Baumann had
a large nose, matronly breasts and thick lips, and wore unfashionable clothes, which Manfred suspected her mother made for her;
and Alice, his neighbour with whom he has an unexpectedly successful date half way through the novel, wore a dress which
was snug around her breasts, which did not appear to be constrained by a brassiere.
Seriously, there are other ways to introduce a female character! I know it implies and says something about the characters more than the writer, and it is not inconsistent with both Baumann and Gorski’s unsuccessful and boorish and horrific sexual relationships, which are dwelt on in uncomfortable and, at times, hilarious, detail.
Clearly no one has told Macrae Burnet the old adage to show not tell as, for the majority of this novel, so little happens to show that he has no choice but to tell the reader the characters’ feelings and thoughts. And it is no worse a novel for that!
Would I read the next novel in what appears to be a series? Yes, yes I will, and The Accident on the A35 is already on my TBR list. Will I be rushing back to it? No, not rushing.
Plot / Pace: 🌟🌟🌟
Date: 17th July 2014