The Accident on the A35: An Inspector Gorski Investigation
This is the second of Graeme Macrae Burnet’s crime novels featuring Chief Inspector Georges Gorski, the shy chief of police of the sleepy rural village of Saint-Louis in Alsace in France. Gorski is called to an accident on the A35 highway—a car has left the road in bad weather, killing the driver. There seems to be nothing untoward about the crash, but Gorski collects the facts, and then visits the dead man’s wife who is puzzled that he would have been on that road at all. He was supposed to be having dinner with business colleagues in town, which he did once a week. She asks Gorski to break the news to her son, Raymond, who accepts it without much reaction.
Raymond is a teenager who had a difficult relationship with his father, and is going through the confusions and sexual discovery of growing up. Much of the novel follows him as he tries in his own way to discover the connection between what happened to his father on the night of his death and an address in the nearby city of Mulhouse written on a scrap of paper that he finds in his father’s desk.
He goes to the address and decides to try to discover its connection with his father. However, far from being an amateur sleuth committed to solving the mystery, he becomes sidetracked by a knife he covets that he sees in a shop in Mulhouse, and even more so by an attractive girl he sees leaving the building. He desires both, but discovers that you must be careful what you wish for.
Raymond is a brilliantly constructed adolescent. The fact that he’s ineffective and not very likable makes him still more believable. And even though he doesn’t win much of our sympathy for his trials as he steals money from his mother and lies to his girlfriend about his Mulhouse activities, we can relate to his turmoil.
Gorski on the other hand is rather charming as he tries to negotiate life after his wife has left him. We understand the pressures of caring for his aged mother and juggling the requirements and insecurities of his job. He sees himself as a plodder, but in fact he’s smart and intuitive. He’s at his best when he overcomes his feelings of inadequacy, as when he says to Raymond after the boy has been lying to him:
“I’ve spent twenty-five years being lied to, you get pretty good at reading the signs. For example, a few moments ago when I asked if your father had ever let anything slip about being in Strasbourg, you cast your eyes upward to the left. Of course you were not aware of it. It’s a reflex. And you know what it told me? It told me you were lying; that you were recalling something that you declined to share with me. Now, that’s fine. Strictly speaking, you’re not obliged to tell me anything. But don’t think I don’t know you’re hiding something.”
Gorski is less successful when flattered by the attentions of a flamboyant, up-and-coming detective from Mulhouse. He allows himself to be bullied into going along with a way-out theory the detective constructs linking Raymond’s father and a nasty murder of a high-class prostitute, a juicy, high profile case. By way of celebration, Gorski allows himself to be carried along on a drinking binge, forgetting a dinner appointment with his wife.
Nevertheless, it is hardly a spoiler that it’s Gorski’s careful and thoughtful detective work that actually solves the cases.
Burnet has conjured an enjoyable novel with a great sense of place. You can almost taste the Alsacian specialties and quite understand that Gorski’s lunch, with a glass of wine or two, might take most of the afternoon. The Gorski novels are much more about character than plot, and have been compared to Simenon’s detective stories. They certainly fit into that genre and that league.
As in his other novels, Burnet pretends to be merely presenting a manuscript written by someone else. The implication is that Raymond himself as a grown man is the actual author. While this device worked well in his debut novel His Bloody Project (a finalist for the Booker prize), here it seems unnecessary and a little self-indulgent. The author exploits it to make a few critical comments of his own in the guise of being the translator. He concludes: “It is of course for readers . . . to decide for themselves who is right. A translator is first and foremost a reader, and it is my hope that others will share my pleasure in returning to the non-descript streets of Saint-Louis.”
No question about that.