A GUARDIAN BEST CRIME BOOK AND THRILLER FOR 2017!
Longlisted for the Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year award for 2018
The Accident on the A35 returns to the scene of Burnet’s accomplished first novel, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau: the small French town of Saint-Louis. Detective Gorski is called away from his night of solitary drinking to the site of a car accident that left Bertrand Barthelme, a respected solicitor, dead. When the deceased's rather attractive wife suggests that the crash may not have been an accident, Gorski looks closer into Barthelme's circumspect movements on the night of his death. His investigation leads him to various bars, hotels, and brothels in the nearby city of Strasbourg. At the same time, Barthelme's rebellious son, drunk on Jean Paul Sartre novels, is conducting an investigation of his own. Their independent, dual inquiries lead the reader down a twisted road marked by seedy back rooms, bar brawls, a moment of accidental incest, and--as we have come to expect from Burnet--copious amounts of wine.
The Accident on the A35 is a darkly humorous, subtle, and sophisticated novel that burrows into the psyches of its characters and explores the dark corners of life in a sleepy town.
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There did not appear to be anything remarkable about the accident on the A35. It occurred on a perfectly ordinary stretch of the trunk road that runs between Strasbourg and Saint-Louis. A dark green Mercedes saloon left the southbound carriageway, careered down a slope and collided with a tree on the edge of a copse. The vehicle was not immediately visible from the road, so although it was spotted by a passer-by at around 10:45pm, it was not possible to say with any certainty when the crash had occurred. In any case, when the car was discovered, the sole occupant was dead.
Georges Gorski of the Saint-Louis police was standing on the grass verge of the road. It was November. Drizzle glazed the road surface. There were no tyre marks. The most likely explanation was that the driver had simply fallen asleep at the wheel. Even in cases of cardiac arrest, drivers usually managed to apply the brakes or make some attempt to bring the vehicle under control. Nevertheless, Gorski resolved to keep an open mind. His predecessor, Jules Ribéry, had always urged him to follow his instincts. You solve cases with this, not this, he would say, pointing first to his considerable gut and then to his forehead. Gorski was sceptical about such an approach. It encouraged an investigator to disregard evidence that did not support the initial hypothesis. Instead, Gorski believed, each potential piece of evidence should be given due and equal consideration. Ribéry's methodology had more to do with ensuring that he was comfortably ensconced in one of Saint-Louis' bars by mid-afternoon. Still, Gorski's initial impression of the scene before him suggested that in this case there would not be much call for alternative theories.
The area had been cordoned off by the time he arrived. A photographer was taking pictures of the crumpled vehicle. The flash intermittently illuminated the surrounding trees. An ambulance and a number of police vehicles with flashing lights occupied the southbound lane of the carriageway. A pair of bored gendarmes directed the sparse traffic.
Gorski ground out his cigarette on the shingle at the side of the road and made his way down the embankment. If he did so, it was less because he thought his inspection of the scene would offer up any insights into the cause of the accident than because it was expected of him. Those gathered around the vehicle awaited his verdict. The body could not be removed from the car until the investigating officer was satisfied. If the accident had occurred just a few kilometres north, it would have fallen under the jurisdiction of the Mulhouse station, but it had not. Gorski was conscious of the eyes of those gathered on the edge of the copse upon him as he scrambled down the slope. The grass was greasy from the evening's rain and his leather-soled slip-ons were ill suited to such conditions. He had to break into a run to prevent himself losing his balance and collided with a young gendarme holding a flashlight. There were suppressed titters.
Gorski took a slow turn around the vehicle. The photographer ceased his activity and stood back to allow him an unencumbered view. The victim had been propelled, head and shoulders, through the windscreen. His arms remained by his sides, suggesting he had made no attempt to shield himself from the impact. His head slumped on the concertinaed bonnet of the car. The man had a full greying beard, but Gorski could ascertain little more about his appearance, as his face, or at least the part that was visible, was entirely smashed in. The drizzle had plastered his hair to what was left of his forehead. Gorski continued his tour around the Mercedes. The paintwork on the driver's side of the vehicle was deeply scratched, indicating that the car might have travelled down the slope on its side before righting itself. Gorski paused and ran his fingers over the crumpled bodywork, as if expecting it to communicate something to him. It did not. And if he now took his notebook from the inside pocket of his jacket and scribbled a few perfunctory notes, it was only to satisfy those observing him. The Road Accident Investigation Unit would determine the cause of the accident in due course. No flashes of intuition were required from Gorski or anyone else.
The offside door had been forced ajar by the impact. Gorski wrenched it further open and reached inside the overcoat of the victim. He indicated to the sergeant in charge of the scene that he had concluded his inspection and made his way up the slope to his car. Once inside he lit another cigarette and opened the wallet he had retrieved. The dead man's name was Bertrand Barthelme, of 14 Rue des Bois, Saint-Louis.
The property was one of a handful of grand family homes on the northern outskirts of the town. Saint-Louis is a place of little note, situated at the Dreyeckland, the junction of Germany, Switzerland and eastern France. The municipality'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. Despite the modest nature of the town, there are still a few families who have, in one way or another, built up what passes for a fortune in these parts. Their properties never come up for sale. They are passed down through the generations in the way that wedding rings and items of furniture are passed down among the poor.
Gorski pulled up at the kerb and lit a cigarette. The house was shielded from view by a screen of sycamores. It was the sort of street where an unfamiliar vehicle parked late at night swiftly elicited a call to the police. Gorski could quite legitimately have delegated the disagreeable task of informing the family to a junior officer, but he did not wish it to appear that he was not up to the job. There was a second, more insidious, reason, however; one that Gorki had difficulty admitting even to himself. He was here in person because of the address of the deceased. Would he have had the same misgivings about sending a lower-ranking officer to a home in one of the less salubrious quarters of the town? He would not. The truth was that he believed that the people who lived on Rue des Bois were entitled to the attention of the town's highest officer of the law. They expected it, and were Gorski not to carry out the task in person, it would later be whispered about.
He contemplated postponing the task until morning — it was close to midnight — but the lateness of the hour provided no excuse. Gorski would have had no qualms about disturbing a family in the shabby apartment blocks around Place de la Gare at any hour of his choosing. It was, furthermore, possible that in the interim the Barthelme family might hear the news from another source.
Gorski walked up the drive, his feet crunching on the gravel. He felt, as he always did when approaching such houses, like he was trespassing. If challenged, he would no doubt make some apologetic remark before bringing out the ID card that authorised his intrusion. He recalled the panic that ensued in his childhood home when a visitor called unannounced. His parents would exchange alarmed glances. His mother would cast her eyes around the room and hastily straighten the cushions and antimacassars before opening the door. His father would put on his jacket and stand to attention, as if ashamed to be caught relaxing in his own home. One evening when Gorski was seven or eight years old, two young Mormons who had recently taken up residence in the town called at the apartment above his father's pawnshop. Gorski heard them explain the nature of their visit in broken French. His mother invited them into the little parlour. Albert Gorski stood behind his chair as if awaiting the appearance of the mayor himself. Gorski was sitting beneath the window, turning the pages of an illustrated book. To his child's eyes, the two Americans were identical; tall and blond, with closely cropped hair and wearing tight-fitting navy blue suits. They stood in the doorway until Mme Gorski directed them to the chairs around the table at which the family took their meals. They did not appear in the least ill at ease. Mme Gorski offered them coffee, which they did not refuse. While she busied herself in the kitchenette, they introduced themselves to M. Gorski, who merely nodded and resumed his seat. The two men then made some remarks about how pleasant they found Saint-Louis. As Gorski's father made no response, a silence ensued, which lasted until Mme Gorski returned from the kitchen with a tray bearing a pot, the good china cups and a plate of madeleines. She wittered away while serving the visitors, but it was apparent that they understood little of her monologue. The Gorskis did not normally take coffee in the evening. Once these formalities were complete, the young man on the left, after casting his eyes meaningfully around the room, gestured towards the mezuzah fixed to the doorpost.
'I see you are of the Jewish persuasion,' he said, 'but my colleague and I would very much like to share with you the message of our faith.'
It was the first time Gorski had heard his parents referred to in this way. Religion was never mentioned in the Gorski household, far less practised. The little box on the doorpost was merely one of the many knick-knacks arrayed around the room that his mother dusted on a weekly basis. It held no particular significance, or if it did, Gorski was not aware of it. He was not even sure what the phrase 'of the Jewish persuasion' meant, other than signifying that they — the Gorskis — were different. Gorski was affronted that these strangers would talk to his father in this way. He remembered little else of the conversation, only that when the Americans had eaten his mother's biscuits, his father had accepted the literature they pressed into his hands and assured them that he would give it careful consideration. The young men seemed delighted by this response and said that they would be happy to call again. They then thanked Mme Gorski for her hospitality and left. Their coffee had been left untouched. Mme Gorski made a remark to the effect that they seemed like pleasant young men. M. Gorski perused the leaflets the Americans had left for half an hour or so, as if it would have been discourteous to immediately cast them aside. After his father's death, Gorski found them in the wooden box under the window sill in which papers deemed to be of a certain importance were kept.
Gorski was about to ring the bell of the house on Rue des Bois for a second time when a light went on in the vestibule and he heard the rattling of keys in the lock. The door was opened by a stout woman in her early sixties. Her grey hair was tied in a bun at the back of her head. She was wearing a dark blue serge dress, tight around her figure. Around her neck she wore a pair of spectacles on a leather string, and a small cross, which nestled in the cleft of her bosom. She had thick, manly ankles and wore brown brogues. She did not appear to have hurriedly dressed to answer the door. Perhaps her duties did not end until the master of the house had returned. Gorski imagined her sitting in her quarters, slowly turning the cards of a game of patience and letting a cigarette burn out in an ashtray by her elbow. She looked at Gorski with the expression of vague distaste to which he was quite accustomed and which he no longer allowed to offend him.
'Madame,' he began, 'Chief Inspector Georges Gorski of the Saint-Louis police.' He proffered the ID he had been holding in readiness.
'Madame Barthelme has retired for the night,' the woman replied. 'Perhaps you would be so good as to call at a more sociable hour.'
Gorski resisted the urge to apologise for the imposition. 'This is not a social call,' he said.
The woman widened her eyes and shook her head a little, drawing in her breath as she did so. Then she raised her glasses to her eyes and asked to see Gorski's identification. 'What sort of time is this to be calling on a decent household?'
Gorski already felt a healthy loathing for this self-important busybody. She clearly believed that her status as gatekeeper to the household endowed her with great authority. He reminded himself that she was no more than a servant.
'It's the sort of time,' he said, 'which would suggest that I have called on a matter of some importance. Now, if you would be so good as to —'
The housekeeper stepped back from the door and grudgingly invited him into a cavernous wood-panelled hallway. The oak doors of the rooms on the first floor opened onto a landing, bounded by a carved balustrade. She ascended the stairs, leaning heavily on the banister, and entered a doorway on the left. Gorski waited in the semidarkness of the hallway. The house was silent. A pale sliver of light emanated from a closed door on the right of the landing. A few moments later the housekeeper reappeared and made her way back down the stairs. She moved with an uneven gait, throwing her right leg out to the side as if troubled by her hip.
Mme Barthelme, she told him, would receive him in her room. Gorski had assumed that the mistress of the house would receive him downstairs. The idea of informing a woman of her husband's death in her bedroom struck him as vaguely indecent. But there was nothing else for it. He followed the housekeeper upstairs. She gestured towards the door and followed him in.
On account of the age of the victim, Gorski had expected to find a more elderly woman propped up on a pile of embroidered pillows. According to his driving licence, Barthelme was fifty-nine years old, but even from the cursory inspection Gorski had made, he had seemed older. His beard was thick and grey, and the cut and fabric of his three-piece suit old-fashioned. Mme Barthelme, by contrast, could not have been much more than forty, perhaps even younger. A mass of light brown hair was piled haphazardly on her head, as if it had been hastily arranged. Ringlets framed her heart-shaped face. On her shoulders was a light shawl, which she had likely donned for the sake of modesty, but her nightdress hung loosely around her chest and Gorski had to consciously avert his eyes. The room was entirely feminine. There was an ornate dressing table and a chaise longue strewn with clothes. The bedside table was arrayed with little brown bottles of pills. There was an absence of masculine articles or garments. The couple, clearly, kept separate rooms. Mme Barthelme smiled sweetly and apologised for receiving Gorski in bed.
'I'm afraid I was feeling rather —' She allowed her sentence to trail off with a vague gesture of her hand, which caused her breasts to shift beneath the linen of her nightdress.
For a moment Gorski forgot the purpose of his visit.
'Madame Thérèse did not tell me your name,' she said.
'Gorski,' he said, 'Chief Inspector Gorski.' He almost added that his forename was Georges.
'Is there enough crime in Saint-Louis to merit a Chief Inspector?' she said.
'Just about.' Normally, Gorski would have been offended by such a remark, but Mme Barthelme managed to make it sound like flattery.
He was standing midway between the door and the bed. There was a chair by the dressing table, but it was not appropriate to sit to deliver such grave news. The housekeeper loitered by the doorway. There was no reason she should not be present, so it was only to assert his authority that Gorski turned to her and said: 'If you wouldn't mind giving us some privacy, Thérèse.'
The housekeeper made no attempt to conceal her affront, but after making a show of straightening the cushions on the chaise longue, she complied.
'And close the door behind you,' Gorski added.
He paused for a few moments, adopting the solemn expression he wore for such occasions. 'I'm afraid I have some bad news, Madame Barthelme.'
'Please call me Lucette. You make me feel like an old maid,' she said. The first part of his statement seemed to have made no impression on her.
Gorski nodded. 'There has been an accident,' he said. He never saw any sense in dragging things out. 'Your husband is dead.'
They all said that. Gorski did not read anything into people's reactions on hearing such news. Were he to receive a visit from a policeman at an unsociable hour, it would be clear that he was to receive bad news. But such thoughts did not seem to occur to civilians, and their first response was generally one of disbelief.
'His car left the A35 and hit a tree. He was killed instantly. It happened an hour or so ago.'
Mme Barthelme emitted a listless sigh.
'It appears from the initial inspection that the most likely scenario is that he fell asleep at the wheel. Naturally, a full investigation will be carried out.'
Mme Barthelme's expression barely changed. Her eyes drifted away from Gorski. They were pale blue, almost grey. Her reaction was not unusual. People did not cry out in anguish, faint or fly into a rage. Still, there was something curious in her subdued response. His eyes wandered to the array of bottles by the bedside. Perhaps she had taken a Valium or some other tranquiliser. Gorski allowed a few moments to pass. Then she started slightly, as if she had forgotten he was there.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Accident on the A35"
Copyright © 2017 Graeme Macrae Burnet.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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The Accident on the A35,