His next book, The Disappearance of Adèle Bédeau, is set in Saint Louis, a small town near Strasbourg. I was attracted to the name for obvious reasons but when I read it I was bowled over by the versatility of this writer who could move between Scotland and France with such ease; who could conjure up an urban landscape as well as a rural one. The Disappearance introduces us to a detective called Georges Gorski, with his snobbish wife Céline and his teenage daughter, Clémence. While I was reading it, I kept on thinking: this is like Simenon: simply told, not terribly dramatic or violent. A quiet book with things going on under the surface. When I reached the end, and the author's 'revelation' that the book was a translation from the French, I was full of admiration...a twist in the tail/tale that took me by surprise and delighted me with its cleverness. Burnet had invented a writer called Raymond Brunet....and it's Brunet's novel he's translating. As he says, in the post script to The Disappearance, quoting from Simenon: Everything is true but nothing is accurate.
I went back to read the Translator's Note on the first Gorski novel, and its full cleverness is only revealed when you open The Accident on the A 35. For this novel describes what happens when Raymond Brunet's father dies in a car accident. The first Gorski novel foreshadows the second almost entirely. It's very clever. Graeme the Scottish writer is counting on a couple of years dulling the memories of all but his most careful readers, and indeed, I'd forgotten the details of this amazing dovetailing of the two books.
Two Raymond Brunet novels, we're told, have come into the possession of the writer. This one describes, very carefully and in enormous detail, what happened when his father died. It's Raymond Brunet who is the model for Raymond Barthelme, the teenager in the novel we're reading. Gorski's wife has left him for the moment and the question of whether the two will be reunited is almost as gripping as the mystery.
And there is a mystery to which we seek an answer. In fact, there is more than one and we are with Georges, trying to get to the bottom of where a rich lawyer was when he said he was meeting with his colleagues and friends in order to discover whether the accident is truly accidental. His son also wants to find out what his father was really up to. We follow them both. Gorski has a drink problem. We spend a lot of time hanging round cafés and bars. The boy is a prototypical disaffected French teenager: all existential angst with a strong whiff of 'je m'en fou-tism". Everyone that Georges and Raymond meet along the way is beautifully described. You can see/hear/smell every single one of them. The answers to the mysteries are both satisfying and (to me) surprising, though I have to say I'm not terribly good and guessing things in books and perhaps I ought to have seen at least one shock coming.
Saint Louis is a dull little town. Nothing much happens. If you want sensation and thrills and rushes of dramatic action, this is not the book for you. But if you want to mooch along drab French streets and smell the coffee and the brandy and meet the denizens of the establishments where Gorski drinks and passes most of his time, then you'll love this, as I did. There's another Brunet novel in the pipeline. I for one can't wait.
The Accident on the A35 is published by Contraband.