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).
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .