The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet invites us to the Haut-Rhin department in Alsace in north-eastern France, and a dullish backwater which is momentarily roused from its slumber by the disappearance of a young and equally non-descript waitress.
It is a deeply atmopsheric read, with shades of Patrice Leconte's Monsieur Hire, and maybe a dash of Claude Chabrol in the style of Au cœur du mensonge or Juste avant la nuit — any of that creepy, expressive small-town-France stuff, where the quiet streets and nearby woodlands conceal a secret or two.
It's not a point that is stressed in the novel, but The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau is also presented in the form of a found manuscript, not a conceit much employed by crime writers but one that does surface now and then in the literary novel.
But while you don't feel like you're reading another actual book (touted as being written by a Raymond Brunet and presented as a bestseller in France, now translated by Graeme Macrae Burnet) you read Adèle Bedeau aware that there is a postcript, ostensibly by Burnet himself, and that in these 6 pages there may be some denoument or surprise.
It doesn't matter, truth be told. The mystery of Adèle Bedeau is well-contained and extremely subtle, building with a minimum of effort in the main body of the book, and the postscript stands as either a postmodern joke, or a conceit on the part of a writer who enjoys being able to stretch a reader's receptivity a little more than is normal.
It is in fact one of several bold moves in the novel, because Graeme Macrae Burnet doesn't feel that he needs to have a murder on the first page to make a success of things, and yet the reader is hooked by other means. It is in fact surprising how many crime novelists feel the need to ensure their reader's attentions by dropping a corpse on page one; Simenon being an example.
This is because it isn't just murder that The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau presents, it is in fact something much more rewarding, and more challenging. Indeed, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau is a sustained and difficult look into the sexual pathology of a certain type of crime; it might be best to describe it is a not quite a murder, and not quite a sex crime, but the claustrophobia becomes incredible, and without giving too much away, you will soon realise that you are taking a rare view into the mind of an etremely guilty and sexually dysfunctional individual, who may or may not have committed a crime.
That individual is Manfred Baumann, a loner, trapped by the town, trapped by sexuality, trapped by his social awkwardness and trapped by a secret in his past. This is all described with keen ecomomy and few wasted words, as if the character is being sorted into a filing cabinet of emotions, and it's a technique that brings great sympathy for Manfred, who is actually an outcast of sorts:
Later that afternoon, Manfred took his sack of washing down to the laundry room in the basement of his building. Someone had left a blouse in one of the dryers. He held it up in front of him. It was pale blue and translucent. The fabric had a pleasing grain between his fingers. It felt expensive. He could smell conditioner, lavender perhaps, a scent an older woman might favour. Manfred felt a strong desire to bury his face in the garment and inhale the aroma, but resisted for fear that its owner might come in and catch him doing so. Instead he folded the garment neatly and placed it on top of the machine.
There is a mystery in The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, mais oui, the title does give that away. But what is incredible is that there are precious few suspects, and that makes the book entirely compelling.
Adèle Bedeau has disappeared, but how? There are no clues and so few characters that the tension mounts very cleverly indeed, and thanks to the omniscient narrator, who shares with the reader the thoughts of the chief suspect and the cop on his tail, we are baffled as to what the outcome may be. Indeed, the book really only has two characters, and so we begin to suspect we may be embarked on something else — a search for truth perhaps? Or a deep-delving into past failures?
The presentation of provincial French life verges on the comic but is never strained. The town of Saint Louis is just as you might expect, gossipy, slightly racist and dull enough that it is pretty much closed down after 10PM. On top of that 'the signs above the shops are fading and the window displays are uninviting,' the ennui lies heavy on virtually everybody, and the town's chief detetctive has 'found his level' here, probably because there is very little crime, other than the criminally dull fashion parties his wife holds in her pretentious boutique.
Of all the notable achievements in The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau the most oustanding is the style of the storytelling, which as I have suggested is not sensational. Many modern crime novels tend to favour a technique which strings together a large number of sequences with strong visual impact but which often have weak connections to one another. This has created a lot of crime novels which feel like rollercoasters, with the story sometimes even being a pretext for a chain of violent actions and descriptions which keep you rooted to the page and fascinated and/or aghast.
Graeme Macrae Burnet in The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau demonstrates a more formal style, however, even crisper than that of his hero Georges Simenon, and the novel is built on plot devlopment which grows inexorably towards a spectacular climax. That this happens slowly is all the more suprising in an age which seems to demand more death, more gore and more sex, but it works so well. Readers will enjoy this change of pace and find an increasingly engaging set of scenes which lead to the book's decisive confrontation, although they may be bemused at the start as to where it may all be going. No — Adèle Bedeau doesn't disappear on the first page, leaving you wondering when she will. And no — the cop on the case doesn't leap into action, so much as wake himself up from a twenty year doze to deal with it.
The novel also exists in a pre-internet age so technology has not thwarted the moral preconditions of the action, allowing us to really feel what the characters think. The range of possible outcomes, the fragility of goodness, and the sustained tour of the lead character's mind all seem to be a cut above techniques which render feeling foreign in more hard-boiled novels. On top of that, as a reader you will sympathise from the off from the novel's chief suspect, which is also startling in its way, because nobody likes him at all, and everybody finds him creepy, unsympathetic and downright unpleasant.
It is this look into sexual pathology which is the book's greatest surprise. In Manfred Baumann we encounter impotence, sexual perversion, as well as a psychophysiological disharmony which his 'rigorous regime of masturbation' and the constant whispers about his sexual orientation do nothing to improve. And in Graeme Macrae Burnet, we have a refreshing new storyteller, one who presents his morbidly interestingly tales in a most assured and riveting fashion.
Do check out the author's musings on Simenon (and other stuff) at Graeme Macrae Burnet's Website (below).