L’Accident Sur Le A35 was written by Raymond Brunet, who doesn’t exist and who committed suicide in 1992, as was an earlier book The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau. Both were translated, we’re told, by Graeme Macrae Burnet. Games are being played, dear reader. Just as Burnet is Brunet with a slight twist, so The Accident On The A35 is Simenon with a sly twist.
Georges Gorski is a dishevelled cop with a drinking problem and a wife problem in a dull little town. When a local lawyer, Bertrand Barthelme, is killed in a road accident he has to break the news to the widow, the fetching Lucette. Why, she wants to know, was Bertrand on the Strasbourg road at all, since he should have been dining in town with colleagues as he always did on a Tuesday?
She was very pretty and he did not, in any case, have any more pressing business to attend to. (33)
Barthelme’s colleagues deny that the Tuesday arrangement ever existed, and are rather suspiciously unhelpful. Gorski, more by wishful thinking than by any logical process, makes a connection with an unsolved murder in Strasbourg, where he’s led astray by the spivvy Philippe Lambert, who is leading the investigation. Meanwhile, Barthelme’s 17-year-old son Raymond, a wishy-washy youth who fancies he might be an existentialist, has taken it into his head to investigate a Mulhouse address he finds in his father’s desk, and is spending his days watching the building and getting to know Delph, a sexy young girl who seems to like him. It’s been observed that Raymond is a mixed-up brooding youth of a kind who often appears in Simenon, but where in Simenon would you find a scene like this:
He raised his knife hand at a right angle to his body, his arm fully extended. Then with a firm jerk of his elbow, he thrust it into the side of his neck. He felt the blade penetrate his skin, make some progress through the muscle, before his hand instinctively loosed its grip. The knife lodged there for a few seconds – no more than that – before dropping to the floor. Raymond was pleased with the effect of his action. Delph stifled a scream. There were gasps from the onlookers. Chairs were scraped back as people rose to get a better view. Even Dédé appeared taken aback. Raymond imagined a great arc of blood spraying across the floor, but in reality only a small glug emerged from the wound. He grinned stupidly at Delph. Then his legs gave way beneath him. He fell face first to the floor, his arms hanging limply at his sides, After a moment, he was aware of the rough texture of the floorboards against his cheek. He suddenly felt tremendously foolish. What an idiotic thing to do! he wondered whether these were to be his final moment of consciousness… He was hauled to his feet and deposited on a stool. Someone suggested calling an ambulance, but it was decided there was no need. Various derogatory words circulated. Someone asserted, with a hint of admiration, that he could have properly hurt himself. (243)
Many elements of the book are Simenonish – the murder of a callgirl, the drab little town (even, apparently, the name of the street Raymond is haunting), the real bleakness of Gorski’s life, the outcome of Raymond’s investigations. What’s different is that this is a game that’s being played, very skilfully and very enjoyably. You can enjoy it as a police procedural, you can enjoy the depiction of life in this very French little town, you can enjoy the solemnly ridiculous, touching figure of Raymond, and you can most certainly enjoy this kind of observation:
In Saint-Louis, as in all provincial backwaters, the inhabitants are most comfortable with failure. Success serves only to remind the citizenry of their own shortcomings and is thus to be enthusiastically resented. So, as Gorski struggled to keep up with the striding figure of Lambert, he suffered a two-fold embarrassment: first because he did not wish to be seen with someone who blatantly did not subscribe to the local ideology of mediocrity; and, secondly, because it was humbling to have Lambert behold the modest nature of his dominion. (195)
I’m off to read The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau.