“You think police work is all about brainwork. It’s not. It’s about telling a story.”
Police detectives must, by the nature of their jobs, drop into the messy points of people’s lives. This is certainly true in Graeme Macrae Burnet’s The Accident on the A-35. Bertrand Barthelme, a prominent lawyer in the town of Saint Louis, is found dead at the wheel of his green Mercedes. It’s a rainy November night, and the simple explanation is that the driver fell asleep at the wheel and careened off the road colliding with a tree.
Chief Inspector Gorski, who always contemplates the methods of his much more popular predecessor, is determined to keep an “open mind” about the accident. Gorski decides to break the bad news to Barthelme’s family himself–partly due to the status of the deceased. Saint Louis, “a place of little note, situated at the Dreyeckland, the junction of Germany, Switzerland and eastern France,” is a small, suffocating town, where everyone knows everyone else, and a few families, the old money families, pull a lot of strings.
The town’s twenty thousand inhabitants can be divided into three groups: those who have no aspiration to live somewhere less dreary; those who lack the wherewithal to leave; and those who, for reasons best known to themselves, like it.
Gorksi visits the Barthelme mansion which is guarded by the housekeeper, Thérèse, an unpleasant woman who has been with the family for years. Ushered into Lucette Barthelme’s bedroom to break the news, Gorski is surprised to discover that the new widow is young and attractive, but then, after all, she was Barthelme’s second wife. When Gorski breaks the news of her husband’s death, to Lucette there’s “something curious in her subdued response.” Ditto the son, Raymond, who has been listening to the movements of the late night visitor.
Even though no one (except perhaps Thérèse) mourns Barthelme’s death, Lucette asks Gorksi to look into the accident that killed her husband. According to Lucette, he was at his club and would not have been on that particular road at that time of night, and so Gorksi begins to poke around ….
The death of Barthelme should be an open and shut case, but Gorksi isn’t quite satisfied. After questioning the dead lawyer’s acquaintances, Gorski hits a brick wall, but then he begins to make a connection to a high profile murder in another town. Influenced by his desire to keep contact with the lovely widow, a damsel in distress who meets Gorksi in her negligee, Gorksi, who finds any excuse to knock back alcohol, embarks on an investigation that appears to be blocked at every turn. He’s the object of disrespect at the police station and only has the job because of his father-in-law, the Mayor. Then there’s Gorski’s marriage which has long since been flushed down the toilet–even if Gorksi hasn’t quite grasped that. Gorski vacillates between thinking he misses his wife and enjoying the luxury of a sort-of holiday from her.
While this sounds like a police procedural, that is too inadequate a description for this unusual, engaging crime novel. The novel has a feel of Simenon, but ultimately The Accident on the A-35 cannot be filed away quite so neatly. Two marriages are under scrutiny here: and in both cases, people married ‘up’ and lived in oppressive circumstances. The death of Barthelme frees his widow and also unleashes Gorksi to indulge in the ultimate investigation mistake: squeezing a crime into a created narrative. This is a compelling tale which captures the oppressiveness of small town life, the lure of distractions, career and marriage frustrations and yes, also, the death of a prominent lawyer. There’s one brilliantly created scene that takes place at a restaurant between Gorksi and his wife. When it seems that Gorksi has been stood up, with simmering resentment and deep humiliation in front of the other smirking customers, he orders for himself.
Gorski got up, knocking the table with his thigh. The wine bottle teetered for a moment, before Céline reached out and steeled it. She allowed him to kiss her on both cheeks. In her heels, she was half a head taller than him.
He mumbled an apology. “I assumed you weren’t coming. The kitchen was closing.”
Céline looked at him. “You’re drunk. she said.”
This is, of course, a power play, a marital maneuver, in which Céline takes revenge for earlier humiliation, knowing that her husband will polish off a bottle of wine before her grand entrance.
The novel purports to be written by the now deceased Raymond Brunet and translated by Graeme Macrae Burnet. I was only annoyed by these diversions and thought the novel stood strongly without that extra wrapping.
Thanks to the Gerts for recommending this.