Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some crime novels arguably also fall into the category of literary fiction. In those cases, the emphasis is as much on characters’ journeys as it is on the mystery at hand. That’s the sort of novel that Graeme Macrae Burnet’s The Accident on the A35 is, so let’s turn today’s spotlight on that novel.
As the story begins, an attorney named Bertrand Barthelme drives his car off the A35 into a tree. As the local chief of police, Georges Gorski goes to the scene of the crime, and at first, puts it in the category of a terrible accident. Perhaps the victim fell asleep at the wheel or was impaired. But Berthelme’s widow, Lucette, says that he shouldn’t have been on that road at that time. According to her, he had gone out to dinner with colleagues. There was no reason for him to be on the A35. Gorski says that all of the indications are that Barthelme’s death was an accident, but Lucette wants answers. So, Gorski agrees to at least ask a few questions.
He begins by trying to trace Berthelme’s movements on the last days of his life, and slowly uncovers some truths about the victim. Little by little, he follows up leads and learns more about Berthelme as he goes along. I don’t want to say more for fear of spoilers, but I can say that Gorski learns a great deal about Berthelme.
In the meantime, we meet Berthelme’s son, Raymond. He is saddened by his father’s death. But more than that, he wants to know more about him. They’ve never really been close, and now he wants to learn about the person his father was. One day, he finds a clue, and follows up with it. And that leads him on a personal journey as well as what you might call an investigation of his own.
The mystery – what Berthelme was doing on the A35 – is an important element in the novel. In their different ways, both Gorski and Raymond look for answers to that question. Gorski, being a police detective, has access to records, autopsy reports, and other official information. He also has the authority to talk to witnesses and make sense of evidence. It’s different for Raymond. He does his own detecting, if you will, but he has no authority. Still, he slowly finds out things about his father that he hadn’t known, and what he learns changes everything.
Like many novels that you could classify as literary, the characters play essential roles in this novel. The story is told (third person, past tense) from the perspectives of Gorski and of Raymond, roughly alternating. So, we learn a great deal about each. Gorski is separated from his wife, Céline. On the one hand, he misses her and their teenaged daughter, Clémence. On the other, it’s really the comfortable patterns of their lives together that he misses more than the actual people. So he doesn’t spend a lot of time wallowing in misery about his living situation. He doesn’t have close relations with his work colleagues, but he (and they) get the job done.
For Raymond’s part, he’s caught, if you will, between boyhood and manhood. He’s got friends in his life, but at the same time, he wants more – perhaps something he can’t even name himself. And, when he goes in search of information about his father, he encounters different people and new ways of looking at life. All of that pushes him beyond his comfort level, but it also gives him energy, if I can put it that way. His experiences have a powerful impact on him.
There’s also Lucette. She’s somewhat enigmatic, and Gorski feels drawn to her in his way. She behaves like a ‘proper’ widow, but she also doesn’t seem to feel much sorrow at the loss of her husband. And, as the novel goes on, it’s not clear whether she’s using Gorski or not. Other characters, too, are a part of this novel, and Burnet gives them detailed attention. And that includes the character of the victim. As Gorski and Raymond ask questions and investigate, we learn more and more about the sort of person Berthelme was.
The story takes place mostly in the small town of Saint-Louis, near the French border with Germany. It’s a somewhat sleepy sort of place. In fact, at one point, Lucette says,
‘‘Is there enough crime in Sant-Louis to merit a Chief Inspector?’’
She has a point. It’s a pleasant enough town, but not much happens there, so it’s little wonder Raymond feels a bit restless. In daily life, culture, and so on, Burnet places the reader in this part of Alsace.
The writing style also reflects the literary sort of nature of the novel. There’s narrative that really evokes place, culture and character. And the timeline sometimes goes back and forth as Gorski or Raymond has a memory. Readers who prefer a strictly chronological retelling of events will notice this. Readers who like character detail and an almost philosophical approach to storytelling will appreciate it.
Like many novels, this one has an Introduction and an Afterward. They are very important to an understanding of the story. Reading them is essential to get the full impact of the novel.
The Accident on the A35 is a mystery novel that’s told in a literary way. It takes place in a distinctive Alsace setting, and features detailed characters and a step-by-step revealing of the victim of a strange accident. But what’s your view? Have you read The Accident on the A35? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 14 January/Tuesday, 15 January – Portrait of a Murderer – Anne Meredith
Monday, 21 January/Tuesday, 22 January – The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra – Vaseem Khan
Monday, 28 January/Tuesday 29 January – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows