His Bloody Project, Graeme Macrae Burnet’s previous novel, had the sort of success that most authors and creative writing students can only dream of. A psychological crime novel set in 19th-century Scotland, it became a surprise bestseller — and it was also shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize. It is not an easy act to follow. Perhaps wisely, Burnet has chosen to make his next novel, his third, very different in both setting and tone.
The A35 in question runs through north-eastern France between Strasbourg and Basel. One evening, at some point in the 1970s, a wealthy lawyer named Bertrand Barthelme is killed when his Mercedes goes off the road as he is driving home to the town of Saint-Louis. The death seems accidental. The real mystery is why Barthelme was on the road in the first place.
The main narrative consists of two separate and diverging investigations that find their way to different conclusions. Chief Inspector Gorski, the head of Saint-Louis’s police force, pursues semi-official inquiries, hampered by the town’s obstructive bourgeoisie and by his own insecurities. His wife has left him; his colleagues laugh at him; his mother’s sinking into dementia; he’s drinking more and more; and he doesn’t even know whether or not he’s Jewish. Can Barthelme have had something to do with the brutal murder of a prostitute in Strasbourg earlier on the night of his own death? A condescending hotshot Strasbourg detective is convinced that he has.
Meanwhile, Barthelme’s teenaged son, Raymond, is blundering towards another set of answers. Reading Sartre’s The Age of Reason and gripped by an existential crisis, he turns detective in the neighbouring town of Mulhouse. He steals a dagger and becomes obsessed with a louche and dangerously attractive girl who may or may not have had something to do with his unloved father.
The result is a crime novel with post-modern flourishes and without a tidy ending. The ghosts of Sartre and Simenon haunt its pages. The characters of Gorski and Raymond are beautifully observed, and Burnet lets them play out their tragicomic parts with understated humour.
All this is topped and tailed by editorial notes in which Burnet appears as the editor of a posthumous novel by a French crime novelist, Raymond Brunet, who committed suicide in 1992. Burnet suggests that Brunet was in fact basing the novel on his own experiences — that he was Raymond. Oh, and by the way Brunet was also the notional ‘author’ of Burnet’s first novel, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau.
Confused by the echoes and anagrams? So am I. Not that it matters. This novel may not reach the Booker shortlist but it’s wry, intelligent and lot of fun.