“It was an evening like any other at the Restaurant de la Cloche.”
YOU are on page 88 of 244 before the character cards you hold start to reveal themselves as a full house of a plot. Here the main character Manfred is older than the protagonists in Burnet’s other books Project and Accident although he has the same disconcerting awkwardness with his own actions and a tendency to predict the worst. He is the kind of man who has the same suit hand made for himself each year. He drinks wine by the glass, a snobbish affectation although he knows it would be cheaper to buy the bottle.
My book jacket calls this a psychological thriller – as opposed to the usual and much cliche’d psychopathic one – and there a touch of the psychotic even hysterical lurking under the surfaces. Any one of the villagers in sleepy old St Louis feels like they might suddenly stand up after lunch and run screaming out of the door, so fraught are they with real, small-town tensions like tightly knotted string dolls. And drunk, of course. The only reason they don’t one suspects is that Burnet has not yet get round to picking the skeletons out of their closets and lining them up on his mantlepiece. As yet, there is time.
Inspector Gorski, we learn, was inspired to become a detective by policemen visiting his father’s pawnshop looking for stolen goods. “I have been a policeman for 23 years. In my experience people say they wish they could be of more help, they very often can be.” The only drink he ever refuses is a cup of coffee.
The French provincial cafe society lures Burnet in, the public intersections of life lived smoking cigarettes – but not in the dress shop – and drinking carafes of wine, the daily set meals by which you can set your diary for pot au feu. The public life of an unremarkable Alsace town that still needs dressmakers and bank managers to make them presentable and settle their affairs.
And an inspector to keep them in order should things get out of hand, which most of the time they don’t, but 20 years ago…Burnet moves his plot like chess pieces, flashbacks to childhood and adolescence fill out his characters – there is a fair bit of fumbling in the bushes – which gives his main people an arc of a life, a memory, motivation, concerns, history…and paranoia.
As with his other works he top and tails everything with a literary conceit. He is not the author but the translator of a forgotten French novelist whose biography appears at the end and allows him to blurr lines, shift the plot box, like a dolls’ house moved one position to the right…