Sunday Times, 8 March 2015
A brilliant novel about class and ambition from one of France’s top crime writers
Unless you read French crime fiction in the original language, you probably haven’t heard of Michel Bussi. None of his books has been published in English until now, even though he is one of France’s bestselling authors. All of that should change with After the Crash, a novel so extraordinary that it reminded me of reading Stieg Larsson for the very first time. Bussi’s novel brings with it the same thrill of discovering a truly original voice.
After years in which Nordic crime fiction has dominated bestseller lists, French crime writing is undergoing a renaissance. Fred Vargas was the biggest name outside France until recently, but Pierre Lemaitre’s trilogy about a Parisian cop has collected rave reviews around the world.
The surprising thing about Bussi is that it has taken so long for him to be published here; this geography professor from Rouen has won 15 literary awards and stayed in the French bestseller lists for the past two years. After the Crash is a family drama with everything thrown in: class conflict, dynastic ambitions and a King Solomonesque dilemma over the identity of a baby. It begins with a plane crash in 1980 that prompts a series of murders; the date is essential because it is before DNA testing became widely available.
Two days before Christmas, a flight from Istanbul to Paris ends in disaster when it ploughs into a mountain. The only survivor is a three-month-old girl. The child’s survival is hailed as a miracle and a couple from northern France, Léonce de Carville and his wife Mathilde, come forward to claim her as their grand-daughter, Lyse-Rose. Then a second couple appears, and insists that the baby is their grand-daughter, Emilie. It turns out that there were two families on board with babies of the same age, and the authorities are faced with the grim task of deciding which claim is more convincing.
The dispute is made even more sensational by the disparity between the two families; the de Carvilles are wealthy aristocrats, while Pierre and Nicole Vitral run a food stall on the beach in Dieppe. The class war between the grandparents makes headline news, and the de Carvilles are furious when a court rules against them. Refusing to give up, they employ a private detective with a shady past to look for proof that the infant has been given to the wrong family.
Eighteen years later, the child has grown up. Her life is punctuated by tragedy, including the death of her grandfather in a suspicious accident, and she faces a conflict of loyalties when she falls in love with the man she believes is her elder brother. Meanwhile, the detective is collecting his papers, haunted by his failure in the case, when a detail catches his eye that could solve the entire mystery. Shortly afterwards, a body is found in his office.
If this sounds like melodrama, it is carried off with confidence and panache; the notion that earth-shaking passions lie just below the surface is a popular theme among French writers. Vargas has always written from the premise that the ordinary is merely a façade. She also shares a taste for the grotesque with Bussi, whose characters in After the Crash include a malicious but strangely sympathetic anorexic.
In retrospect, it seems clear that Vargas has gradually opened doors for other French writers in much the same way Henning Mankell did for his fellow Swedes. After the Crash introduces an author with an unusually devious approach to plot, unafraid to set false trails or withhold vital information. It is one of the most remarkable books I’ve read in a long time; Bussi breaks every rule in the book, but I doubt I’ll read a more brilliant crime novel this year.