I was given a review copy of this collection by Bee Books in exchange for an honest review.
“You might as well say that whenever two people meet it’s strange. Our meeting is no stranger than any other meeting between two people who don’t know each other.”
The quote describes The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau better than you would think at first glance. In the sleepy, provincial, transitory border town of Saint Louis, more people know each other by face than not, and yet, as the book shows us, it’s possible for people to harbour secrets, for murders to stay unsolved for years, and for two people to meet as strangers without being aware of shared pasts and connections.
The protagonist Manfred Baumann and cop Georges Gorski are flung into each other’s lives by the disappearance of the titular character. But, if you are expecting Adele to be one of the key players of this mystery, you will be disappointed. As the story progresses, it’s clear that she is merely a MacGuffin for Baumann and Gorski to interact. That this is a story about two outsiders. Two loners in their own way. As the story moves along further, one even forgets about the waitress at long stretches; so compelling is the deep psychological unpacking of Manfred and Georges.
Manfred is a manager at a local bank. He is a creature of habit, almost obsessively so. He’s described as good-looking by the writer, but weird and creepy by other characters. As you read more, you realise that despite obvious dark and twisted shades, he is someone who cares about his appearance not drawing any negative attention, while also seeking approval. His regular haunt is the Restaurant de la Cloche where nineteen-year-old Adele is a waitress. He has harboured certain fleeting fantasies about Adele, and has seen her, on the night she disappeared, being picked up by a boy on a motorbike. Not wanting to draw suspicion onto himself, he denies any knowledge of this to Gorski when questioned and insists on sticking to his story despite the cop’s repeated attempts. There is an increasing paranoia as his carefully controlled life starts unravelling; but now we know the reasons that have led to him being the way he is.
Georges Gorski is an outsider in his own right. His wife is from a higher-status family, owns a fashion boutique and is always embarrassed at revealing that he is only a lowly cop. An unsolved murder in his very early days still haunts him. When he interacts with Baumann, something keeps pulling him back. He is convinced, without possessing evidence, that he is involved in Adele’s disappearance in one way or another. But – and here he is like Manfred – he doesn’t believe in intuition, but precision, routine, and discipline.
Initially, when we are only with Manfred’s point of view, this seems like it is going to be a very different story than it ends up being. This is an unashamedly slow-burning, noir literary mystery centred around its two main characters rather than an exciting whodunnit. It’s about their past, present and future, and how all three are linked even though they aren’t aware of the connection. I found myself turning pages just as I would with any fast-paced thriller. The writing is tight and nuanced, the stylish atmosphere is believably French, and the writer has a wonderful way with description that furthers the character exploration without wasting words and gives the reader some great visuals.
“A plump woodpigeon was pecking at the gravel of the drive. Gorski’s footsteps did not disturb it.”
None of the characters you will encounter in this book are likeable or sympathetic. Usually, I have problems finishing a book like this, but here there was something, uneasy though it was, that prompted me to keep reading till the end. But the end did disappoint me a little. Not for its lack of an exciting resolution, but for a lack of any tangible resolution other than “things happen, sad though they might be, and life goes on.” After the intense, almost fastidious depth in its exploration of the main characters and their psyche, the summation felt like a letdown.
This disappointment was kept to the side as I read the “Translator’s Afterword” that immediately follows the end of the story. Graeme Macrae Burnet is only the translator of this original French novel by Raymond Brunet. Brunet’s life eerily mirrors that of Manfred Baumann. The translator further says that though the initial publication of The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau in 1982 was rather quiet, it achieved cult status after the screen version by Claude Chabrol in 1989. There is a 90-second trailer of the supposed film online, but that’s it. It soon becomes clear that this is a post-modern touch to proceedings. I’m not sure whether I like this little trick – I feel that the strengths of the book don’t require this to be appreciated.
“Once he had heard a character in a film say that actions left an imprint on a place, just as a fire leaves a tang of charcoal in the air…”
This book, though I was disappointed with its denouement, has definitely left its imprint on my mind, and I would be interested in reading the other two books by Graeme Macrae Burnet, especially His Bloody Project which was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize.
If you think this sounds like something you would enjoy, don’t hesitate to pick it up. There’s a lot I enjoyed despite my usual preferences.
Thank you, Bee Books for giving me the chance to read this book.