Manfred Baumann is an unassuming, middle-aged banker whose mundane existence is enlivened by his fantasies of Adèle Bedeau, the laconic waitress at his daily watering hole. A somewhat desolate figure who sits on the fringes of a small French community, Manfred’s quiet life is thrown into disarray when the object of his affection mysteriously vanishes, plunging him into the centre of a possible murder investigation.
The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau is a clever beast indeed. A masterful character study with a metafictional impulse (there’s a rather cheeky suggestion that the book is in fact a translation of a popular French novel, with Burnet’s prose feeling so authentically French one cannot help but think: ‘Of course. This author’s so Gallic he has baguettes and berets coming out of his derrière!’), and its razor-sharp portrait of small-town France is expertly pitched and executed. The criminal element of the book – Adèle’s disappearance – is merely the foil to a far more intriguing foray into the past of our innocent protagonist.
Burnet certainly seems to enjoy unpicking the characteristic strands of crime fiction. Gorski, the intrepid detective, seems at first glance to tick several ‘crime fiction boxes’ – an unsolved case in his past, a fraying marriage and tension at the station – and yet he is curiously unlike any of the tired archetypes we’ve come to know from the genre. Returning to the woodland scene of a 20-year-old murder that he believes a man was falsely imprisoned for, Gorski laments that in all the years he has revisited the scene, not once has he been blessed by that magic flash of intuition that so many fictional detectives have been dazzled by. He merely sits. And mopes. No, he’s no wunderkind – indeed, Burnet makes it quite clear that Gorski rose quickly in the ranks because of a personal favour, not necessarily because he was the best cop on the beat.
Manfred Baumann, the book’s central protagonist, is just as much of a square peg in a round hole. Neither handsome nor ugly, lacking charm or quick wit, he is stuck in the rigour mortis of strict daily routine. The reader knows from the outset that he has nothing to do with the disappearance of the titular Adèle, but that does not mean he escapes the novel unstained. These unexpected arcs promise much for the two more Gorski novels Burnet has planned, in which – I hope – the detective takes a more central role in the narrative.
Being Burnet’s debut novel, comparisons will inevitably be drawn. But it’s not the characters of Ian Rankin or even George Simenon that spring to mind: no, it is a curious and rather brilliant mix of Northanger Abbey’s Catherine Morland (Austen) and The Elegance of the Hedgehog’s Renée Michel (Barbery) that feel more relatable. The intense fantasy life of Baumann and Gorski’s subdued intelligence are the forces that propel the novel forward – self-reflection, not exciting narrative.
There are some flaws, but the fact that Baumann remains streamlined and mostly high-functioning despite his daily imbibing barely merits discussion. Perhaps I’m just bitter that I can’t pull off the same feat myself. Clever, playful and bleakly funny, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau has all the makings of a cult classic.
Graeme Macrae Burnet received a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award in 2013. He studied English Literature at Glasgow University before spending some years teaching in France, the Czech Republic and Portugal. He then took an M.Litt in International Security Studies at St Andrews University and fell into a series of jobs in television. These days he lives in Glasgow. His debut novel, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, is published by Saraband. He is currently working on a new novel set in 1860s Wester Ross, and developing two more books featuring Georges Gorski.
Thursday 17 July, 7pm – 8.30pm
Waterstones Argyle Street
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