Category Archives: Graeme Macrae Burnet

After She Died, They Went Through Her Things*

One of the sad realities of death is that someone has to go through the dead person’s things and make decisions about what to do with them. Very often (not always!), that task falls to a family member. And that means there’s an added emotional layer to the task.

That sort of clearing out can add an interesting sense of tension to a crime story. For one thing, one never knows what one might find in that sort of clearing-out. And that opens up plenty of possibilities for plot points. For another thing, people may feel all sorts of different ways about someone’s death. That can add character development and suspense.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress, we are introduced to Mary Gerrard. She is the daughter of the lodgekeeper at Hunterbury, the home of Laura Welman. Mary’s father has recently died, and she needs to clean out the home and his things and decide what to do with them. The local district nurse, Jessie Hopkins, helps in the task, and the two have a very interesting conversation, during which Mary learns some surprising things about her father and her own past. Not long afterwards, Mary herself dies of what turns out to be poison. Laura Welman’s niece, Elinor Carlisle, is the most likely suspect for several reasons. In fact, she is arrested and tried for the crime. The local GP, Peter Lord, has fallen in love with Elinor, and wants her name to be cleared. So, he asks Hercule Poirot to look into the case. Poirot finds that Mary’s death has everything to do with the past.

Vera Caspary’s Laura begins as the body of successful advertising executive Laura Hunt is discovered in her apartment. Lieutenant Mark McPherson of the NYPD is assigned to the case and starts the investigation. As McPherson learns more about the victim, and spends time in her apartment, he slowly builds a picture of what she was like. He feels a real connection with her as he goes through her things. As more time goes by, he finds himself falling in love with her memory. Then, everything changes. It turns out that the body in the apartment is not Laura’s, but a woman named Diane Redfern, who had Laura’s permission to stay in the apartment while Laura was out of town. Now, the investigation changes completely, and McPherson has to start all over again. Even Laura becomes a suspect…

In Camilla Läckberg’s The Ice Princess, we are introduced to Erica Falck, a writer who’s just returned from Stockholm to her home town of Fjällbacka. Her parents have both died, and now she has the sad task of going through her parents’ things and deciding what to do about their house. It’s difficult for her, but she wants to get the project underway. Then, everything changes. The body of a former friend, Alexandra “Alex” Wijkner, is discovered in her own bathtub. At first, it looks as though it might be a suicide. But soon enough, it’s determined that she was murdered. Erica hasn’t had much contact with Alex for many years, and she’s curious about the woman her friend became. And she wants to find out who the killer is. So, she starts asking questions. And she discovers that Alex was keeping some very dark secrets from her past, and that has everything to do with her murder.

In R.J. Harlick’s Death’s Golden Whisper, we meet Meg Harris, who’s just left a destructive relationship, and has moved to Three Deer Point in Outaouais, in Western Québec. She inherited the property from her Great-Aunt Agatha and is now going through the house and Aunt Agatha’s things. Meg knows that Aunt Agatha always had a good relationship with the Miskigan people who live in the area, and she’s tried to carry on that tradition. So far, she’s succeeded. That’s why Miskigan Band Chief Eric Odjik trusts her enough to ask for her help. There are stories that a local small island, Whisper Island, has gold on it. A company called CanacGold wants to drill there to see if it’s true. And there are some Miskigan who want the trilling, because it means more jobs and income. But most of the Miskigan want the island preserved. They can’t prove that it’s their land, though, so there’s a good chance that CanacGold will get the drilling rights. The only way to avoid that is if the land actually belongs to someone. That ‘someone’ might be Meg, since Whisper Island may be part of the property she inherited. Eric asks Meg to see if she can find any evidence of that, and Meg agrees. Before long, she’s caught up in a land rights dispute, a disappearance, and murder.

And then there’s Graeme Macrae Burnet’s The Accident on the A35. That novel begins as an attorney named Bertrand Barthelme drives his car off the A35 and into a tree. Georges Gorski, local chief of police, investigates the death, and that includes speaking with Barthelme’s widow, Lucette, and son, Raymond. Lucette says that her husband was at dinner in town and would have no reason to be on the A35. She wants his death investigated more closely, and Gorski plans to do just that. In the meantime, Raymond wants to know more about his father, as the two were never close. So, he begins to go through his father’s things. One day, he finds a clue, and that leads him on his own personal journey.

The task of going through the things of someone who’s died can be very difficult. But it can add to a crime novel, especially if that clearing-out yields some clues. When it’s done well, it can be very effective.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marie-Lynn Hammond’s Bits of String.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Camilla Läckberg, Graeme Macrae Burnet, R.J. Harlick, Vera Caspary

In The Spotlight: Graeme Macrae Burnet’s The Accident on the A35

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some crime novels arguably also fall into the category of literary fiction. In those cases, the emphasis is as much on characters’ journeys as it is on the mystery at hand. That’s the sort of novel that Graeme Macrae Burnet’s The Accident on the A35 is, so let’s turn today’s spotlight on that novel.

As the story begins, an attorney named Bertrand Barthelme drives his car off the A35 into a tree. As the local chief of police, Georges Gorski goes to the scene of the crime, and at first, puts it in the category of a terrible accident. Perhaps the victim fell asleep at the wheel or was impaired. But Berthelme’s widow, Lucette, says that he shouldn’t have been on that road at that time. According to her, he had gone out to dinner with colleagues. There was no reason for him to be on the A35. Gorski says that all of the indications are that Barthelme’s death was an accident, but Lucette wants answers. So, Gorski agrees to at least ask a few questions.

He begins by trying to trace Berthelme’s movements on the last days of his life, and slowly uncovers some truths about the victim. Little by little, he follows up leads and learns more about Berthelme as he goes along. I don’t want to say more for fear of spoilers, but I can say that Gorski learns a great deal about Berthelme.

In the meantime, we meet Berthelme’s son, Raymond. He is saddened by his father’s death. But more than that, he wants to know more about him. They’ve never really been close, and now he wants to learn about the person his father was. One day, he finds a clue, and follows up with it. And that leads him on a personal journey as well as what you might call an investigation of his own.

The mystery – what Berthelme was doing on the A35 – is an important element in the novel. In their different ways, both Gorski and Raymond look for answers to that question. Gorski, being a police detective, has access to records, autopsy reports, and other official information. He also has the authority to talk to witnesses and make sense of evidence. It’s different for Raymond. He does his own detecting, if you will, but he has no authority. Still, he slowly finds out things about his father that he hadn’t known, and what he learns changes everything.

Like many novels that you could classify as literary, the characters play essential roles in this novel. The story is told (third person, past tense) from the perspectives of Gorski and of Raymond, roughly alternating. So, we learn a great deal about each. Gorski is separated from his wife, Céline. On the one hand, he misses her and their teenaged daughter, Clémence. On the other, it’s really the comfortable patterns of their lives together that he misses more than the actual people. So he doesn’t spend a lot of time wallowing in misery about his living situation. He doesn’t have close relations with his work colleagues, but he (and they) get the job done.

For Raymond’s part, he’s caught, if you will, between boyhood and manhood. He’s got friends in his life, but at the same time, he wants more – perhaps something he can’t even name himself. And, when he goes in search of information about his father, he encounters different people and new ways of looking at life. All of that pushes him beyond his comfort level, but it also gives him energy, if I can put it that way. His experiences have a powerful impact on him.

There’s also Lucette. She’s somewhat enigmatic, and Gorski feels drawn to her in his way. She behaves like a ‘proper’ widow, but she also doesn’t seem to feel much sorrow at the loss of her husband. And, as the novel goes on, it’s not clear whether she’s using Gorski or not. Other characters, too, are a part of this novel, and Burnet gives them detailed attention. And that includes the character of the victim. As Gorski and Raymond ask questions and investigate, we learn more and more about the sort of person Berthelme was.

The story takes place mostly in the small town of Saint-Louis, near the French border with Germany. It’s a somewhat sleepy sort of place. In fact, at one point, Lucette says,
 

‘‘Is there enough crime in Sant-Louis to merit a Chief Inspector?’’
 

She has a point. It’s a pleasant enough town, but not much happens there, so it’s little wonder Raymond feels a bit restless. In daily life, culture, and so on, Burnet places the reader in this part of Alsace.

The writing style also reflects the literary sort of nature of the novel. There’s narrative that really evokes place, culture and character. And the timeline sometimes goes back and forth as Gorski or Raymond has a memory. Readers who prefer a strictly chronological retelling of events will notice this. Readers who like character detail and an almost philosophical approach to storytelling will appreciate it.

Like many novels, this one has an Introduction and an Afterward. They are very important to an understanding of the story. Reading them is essential to get the full impact of the novel.

The Accident on the A35 is a mystery novel that’s told in a literary way. It takes place in a distinctive Alsace setting, and features detailed characters and a step-by-step revealing of the victim of a strange accident. But what’s your view? Have you read The Accident on the A35? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday, 14 January/Tuesday, 15 January – Portrait of a Murderer – Anne Meredith

Monday, 21 January/Tuesday, 22 January – The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra – Vaseem Khan

Monday, 28 January/Tuesday 29 January – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

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Filed under Graeme Macrae Burnet, The Accident on the A35