Scottish novelist Graeme Macrae Burnet was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016 for the historical novel, His Bloody Project. In The Accident on the A35 he does something completely different, tackling murder, Inspector Maigret-style.
The story is set in the town of Saint-Louis in Alsace, relatively close to the cities of Mulhouse and Strasbourg in Eastern France. The net spreads somewhat and these cities also become involved when the body of a woman who has been strangled is discovered.
The main swathe of the action however centres on the death of a lawyer, Monsieur Barthelme, who dies in what looks like a car accident when the car he is driving veers off the eponymous A35 with fatal results. Barhelme's wife and teenage son Raymond do not show much outward sign of bereavement when visited by Inspector Gorski who breaks the news.
The coquettish Mme Barthelme insists that her husband customarily dined out with pals on the Tuesday night in question but it appears there are hours unaccounted for. Moreover, his associates when interviewed declare they know nothing about any such dining club. Raymond, the son, turns sleuth himself, having found a scrawled address in Mulhouse on a piece of paper on his father’s desk. He effectively conducts a parallel investigation to the one being carried out by Gorski.
Adding a modicum of frisson to proceedings, the currently separated Inspector Gorski – a man who does not enjoy the domestic stability enjoyed by George Simeonon's uxorious Commisaire Maigret - finds himself attracted to the widow Barthelme.
The author is clearly emulating the Belgian master of crime, Georges Simenon (1903-1989) but one must be cautious about those obvious Inspector Maigret similarities.
First of all, The Accident on the A35 is not in fact translated from the French, which happens to be the way most of us read Simenon. The fact that the Maigret books are translated is part of the angular charm of reading him. Ther can indeed be little ‘ping’ moments where the reader senses not so much things getting lost in translation as being strained through occasional pinch points in the syntactical structures of French. Or maybe some slightly anachronistic constructions may rear their head - whatever the case, these stylistic traits are part of the attraction.
However, in the case of The Accident on the A35, the reader is obliged to believe that the story has been translated... As revealed in a foreword and elaborated on further in a Translator’s Afterword’, the manuscript of the novel was submitted for publication after the death by suicide of its author, a certain Raymond Brunet. The yarn would have been better without the adornment of such meta-fictional flourishes and with some astute editing, Macrae Burnet would have had a decent novel on his hands. Monsieur Simenon too would have baulked at a novel that runs to 256 pages - most of his came in at around 100 pages less and were all the better for brevity.
Simenon believed his Maigret novels were popular because of their relative shortness, readers did not have time to get fed up with them. It is indeed a pity that Grame Macrae Burnet did not cut his cloth in similar fashion - an editorial scalpel would have helped this murky tale.