A young writer from Scotland, who has lived for a time in a string of cities I’ve long had on my Gotta-Get-There list (Prague, Porto, Bordeaux), is already a master at literary crime novels. Graeme Macrae Burnet’s second novel, His Bloody Project, was short-listed for the Booker Prize a few years back, and while I’ve not yet read that one, the book that preceded it is a great piece of work.
In his debut novel, The Disappearance of Adéle Bedeau, which was originally published by a very small house then republished following the Booker business,* Burnet carefully constructs the interior architecture of two characters we’d have to call protagonists here. One is the subject of a criminal investigation, Manfred Baumann, who was orphaned early in life and became a bank manager in the backwater of Saint-Louis; and the other is Inspector Georges Gorski, chief homicide investigator who also grew up in this humble little burg. Both Baumann and Gorski—they share the point-of-view in Burnet’s skillful telling—are people to root for, even though one comes under suspicion for a long-ago crime he may not have committed if mature intent is one of the elements, and the other can’t seem to shed a wife who so clearly seems to deserve it at times.
The beauty of the book, for me, is its unerring balance of literary and crime fiction elements. Wonderful renderings of the interior lives of both men are balanced with the unspooling of plot lines that drive crime fiction. Free of the excessive factoids and buried clues all too common in detective stories that never really get inside any of the characters, but just lay out clues as if fashioning a crossword puzzle, here the investigation is free to become one of not just whodunit, but who these two people really are . . . and how they resemble so many of us inside. Allusions to the character studies common in works by Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye) and many others may be useful.** This is the crime fiction I’m interested in. (Click on Comment below to shout out your own favorites.)
The principal driver of the crime fiction plot is, of course, the event noted in the title. Baumann is questioned because he hangs out in the restaurant where Adéle worked, and left just after she did on the night she was last seen. In the process of answering questions about anything he saw or heard, he tells an innocent falsehood that turns out to plague him when Inspector Gorski can’t understand how it could be true or why Manfred would lie about it. It’s a complete irrelevance, really—everything he could have told was discovered by the detective in short order—but because it must be a lie, he’s under a cloud of suspicion for the unresolved disappearance, which won’t lift until he comes clean. Manfred is a man who mostly means well but can’t seem to get out of his own way, and not just in his dealings with Gorski. And the ending is not to be forgotten.
Burnet is the real deal. I will not be surprised to see him win lots more prizes in the many years of writing he has in front of him. His third novel, The Accident on the A35, is another Inspector Gorski novel that two of my favorite sources rave about, and it’s waiting here on the shelf.
* For a hilarious send-up of Booker Prize machinations, see Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn.
** Examples going back many years include John Banville (writing as himself in The Book of Evidence, and as Benjamin Black in Christine Falls and others); Patricia Hightower (The Talented Mr. Ripley; Strangers on a Train; and The Price of Salt, renamed “Carol” for the film version); Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest); Graham Greene (The Ministry of Fear and Brighton Rock); Caleb Carr (The Alienist); John Fowles (The Collector) and Robert Louis Stevenson (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).
William Trevor wrote novels and short stories for over 60 years. He was born in Ireland, moved to England in the 1960’s and settled eventually in Devon, where he died peacefully in his sleep a few years ago. This collection was published in 2018. And though he wrote about a dozen books of each, and wonderful novels that won many awards, he’s perhaps best known for his short stories, maybe because few of our great fiction writers publish as many books of short stories as they do novels.
But I think there’s another reason: He’s better than anybody at creating within the span of a very few pages both fully realized characters and an image of their whole lives.
The opening story, “The Piano Teacher’s Pupil,” spans just eight pages. One marvels at how simply and directly he sets up our protagonist’s life with all its relevant backstory, and the challenge she is presented when a schoolboy arrives for his first lesson with her, and she learns within a few notes that he’s the best pupil she will ever have. All this without a wasted word, but a deep, clear picture in four pages. Then, the rub. A very short story, so full and yet so spare. Trevor at the height of his powers, writing short stories that feel like whole novels because of what’s between the lines.
“At the Caffé Daria” tells the story of Anita, a woman who lost her handsome and clever husband to another—a longtime friend, no less—long ago. She returns daily to the caffé in what had been their neighborhood, which is still his neighborhood along with the house, but the caffé is still hers. A well-wrought caffé is like a painting—some even a masterpiece. They have a spirit to them, that draws out of their long-time denizens all manner of memories down all the years; a place that’s warm and human you can return to again and again, like chapels on the roadside of a life once lived.
One morning, Anita feels someone hailing her in the caffé. It’s Claire, the second wife, who dropped by several months back to tell Anita her husband is dead, and the house is to be sold to pay the debts. She says then what she has come to say now:
“I’m sorry,” Claire says, the useless words whispered as if they deserve no more than that.
“Why have you come?” Anita repeats her question of months ago, precise and cold, as it was then.
“Perhaps I’ve come to beg you to forgive me. You bear Gervaise’s name and I do not. Gervaise has died and we  are left.”
“But we are as we are, not as we were. Death exorcizes nothing. I was a passing fancy in a spoilt man’s life and you were everything. It’s that that’s left.”
Anita stands up, and Claire does too. In silence she begs again, a pleading in her eyes.
“Gervaise did not know about being faithful,” she says before she goes. “He never was. Nor was I everything.”
But Anita’s unforgiving resolve does not weaken, and the conversation ends in silence.
The seasons pass. Several times Anita thinks she sees Claire in the caffé, but it is not to be.
Claire is somewhere. If Anita prayed she would pray to know where. If she knew the secrets of telepathy she would employ them.
The sales board has been taken down. Other people live in the house. Claire cherishes in her lonely solitude what Anita, in hers, too late embraces now: all that there was before love came, when friendship was the better thing.
“The Women” closes this collection of ten stories. Mr. Normanton and his daughter, Cecilia, live in London City. She takes weekend trips with him to Suffolk, and they walk the City streets with all its sights and sounds. “Your mother isn’t here anymore,” is all her father has told her since she was very young. She is home-schooled by a retired schoolmaster, and a married couple come to cook and clean. Eventually, “sensitive to the pressure of duty where his child was concerned, her father did not demur when he was advised that the time had come to send her away to boarding school, to be a girl among other girls.”
There she keeps a garden and is made to watch field hockey games when other schools come to play. At one game, Cecilia spots two women watching, too. At a second game, “They stood about as if they had a reason to, and Cecilia avoided looking in their direction.”
The point of view then shifts to these women. But I’ll leave it there.
Judging from his writing—fairly knowing from his writing—William Trevor was a kind soul with a knack for painting them with words. A man as he himself put it, with “Irish in every vein.”
Finally, you probably know of Keb' Mo', a talented bluesman born in Compton now living in Nashville. The lovely Pheme and I saw him at the Paramount Theater in Oakland years ago, and signed up to see him here this summer in Santa Fe's legendary theater and concert venue, The Lensic. That concert isn't going to happen live at the Lensic now, but we just got word it's happening online. A mere $15 per device, to listen and watch on your Laptop or your Big Dog. Or you can cable up the sound through your home stereo system and the picture through your wide screen, if you dare (free tips on reply). Great blues on September 26 at 6:30 PT/7:30 MT/8:30 Keb'T/9:30 ET.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .