Purchased by chance, or rather by me, in Hatchards, the gorgeous bookshop on Piccadilly, it’s seldom you read a book as well executed as its cover. The classical image of a man and his carafe of red wine sums up the wide range of nocturnal entertainment options in Saint-Louis. This is not a Butlins. But one of thousands of towns in the sleepier parts of Europe, in which time trots by, untouched by hypermarkets, the Internet or personal drones. There’s the sense that a box set of Narcs or Sons of Anarchy could change the town forever, as the residents flock around to see how shiny DVDs are.
It’s against this backdrop that the underwhelming, yet well-dressed detective Georges Gorki finds himself investigating the disappearance of waitress Adele Bedeau from Restaurant de la Cloche. He remains haunted by an unsolved case 20 years earlier.
It’s a literary whodunit of which there are not enough, and is better written than most Booker Prize winners and certainly has a better story, although that isn’t difficult. It instinctively understands that lovers of well-written prose can also enjoy a good thriller, rather than enduring existential hubris of college professors flirting with the possibility of a student affair for 600 pages. Too many literary books are about what if? This novel explores what is, and creates a turn-pager of the elegance you dared not dream of.
The characters are shady and real. And Burnet captures the ennui of an unimportant market town perfectly; one simultaneously longs to live there, while feeling grateful one does not. It’s a town to escape from, yet none of the characters have. The inhabitants are the ones left behind.
There are glorious culture clashes between the traditional strait-laced upper French classes and the more dashing – by Saint-Louis standards – Inspector Gorski, but the real standout is Manfred Baumann, the loner assisting in his enquiries. Baumann is a character as unforgettable as the novel, who lives in an apartment he’s incapable of making a home. It’s tremendously thrilling stuff.
Graeme Macrae Burnet’s recent novel His Bloody Project was actually long listed for the Man Booker this year, again published by Contraband, and promises to be an equally affecting read.