Like probably a lot of readers, I picked this up fairly recently in the wake of Graeme Macrae Burnet‘s second novel – His Bloody Project – being shortlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize (and which has just now worked its way to the top of my reading pile). And absolutely fair play to his publisher – Saraband, a tiny but brilliantly creative Scottish publishing house (check out the video to support part of the backstory of this first novel) – for using the Booker to add a bit more juice to an earlier novel.
Bedeau purports to be the author’s translation of a French cult classic by one Raymond Brunet (see what he did there?): one that has been effective enough to confuse more than a few poor souls. It is, of course, a novel, with the ‘translation’ constituting an elaborate structual device whose purpose is conjectural but which seems to have been to support what is arguably the book’s main purpose. John Fowles of course deployed similar structural devices in several of his works.
The novel itself need not detain us too long: it is, in truth, a rather slight story with the disappearance of Ms. Bedeau being simply a MacGuffin on which to hang a study of two men – one being a detective; the other a social misfit who may know something about the disappearance but who has a complex psychological history – located in smalltown France (the very real town of Saint-Louis, close to Strasbourg). Having himself spent some time living in France, Burnet’s observations are well-informed and the novel’s keen sense of atmosphere and place, particularly around the role of food and drink in French society, is likely to owe significantly to his experience. The tale is assured and well-told, with chapters consumed by your reviewer at a rapid pace and unfolding in a well-described timeframe, partly in the current and partly in flashback for both the main protagonists; and there is an appreciable level of sly humour surrounding the author’s observations. And yet ultimately the author pulls his punches on the main plot; sub-plots are left undeveloped and, in one case, completely hanging; and the key to the denouement of the main plot appears trivial and would, thus, be unsatisfactory in a more major work.
It is interesting to learn (from the author’s profile page on the Saraband website) that Burnet is returning to his detective – Inspector Georges Gorski – in his next novel, since this gives us the key to Bedeau‘s main purpose: it is a homage to Georges Simenon, the French writer whose Inspector Maigret books are modern classics and who (alongside other European crime novels) is a declared major influence on Burnet as an author. It is in this novel-as-homage that we might view some of its weaknesses (weak and poorly developed female caricatures; bad sex scenes; a level of misogyny in describing the women characters and one instance of casual racism towards the book’s end): this is not Burnet’s voice, necessarily, but that of the purported author he is translating and whose roman fits into a genre of cheap, and rather dated, French detective novels which are themselves Simenon pastiches. Consequently, we should probably cut Burnet a little slack on such weaknesses: in this reading, this novel of his is only partly his own and the weaknesses may stem, more or less built-in, from the purpose of the novel-as-homage rather than from the mind and the pen of Burnet as himself. It will thus be interesting to see how Gorski features next, what device Burnet will use to support his re-appearance and how much of Burnet’s own voice, as opposed to him acting as a channel for forgotten (and minor) French authors, is contained in that work.
In the meantime, I’m looking forward immensely to hearing a little more of Burnet’s own voice sans the influence of French crime novelists in His Bloody Project.