The French thriller Un Avion sans Elle, now translated into English as After the Crash, comes with a blaze of publicity reminiscent of that attending Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy and the work of the Japanese author Keigo Higashino (The Devotion of Suspect X, Salvation of a Saint) – the promise of a stirring, twist-in-the-tail story combined with sociological or psychological commentary. And to a degree, this is the case. You feel a pleasing chill when, in the opening pages of Michel Bussi’s novel, a detective, about to commit suicide because he has been unable to solve a confounding mystery for 18 years, realizes that the solution has been staring at him from the front page of an old newspaper.
The book then adopts a cross-cutting narrative. We are made privy to the detective’s journal account of the case that preoccupied him for so long, as well as the present-day trials of a young man named Marc and the girl he loves, Lylie, whose identity is at the heart of the mystery. Lylie, now 18 (the story is set in 1998), was the sole survivor of a plane crash as a three-month-old baby, and was subsequently claimed by two different families – one very wealthy, the other eking out a livelihood by selling sausages from a van. A court judgement – based mainly on circumstantial evidence – was reached, but both families knew in their hearts that there was no foolproof way of verifying the baby’s origin, and this uncertainty affected many lives over the years.
If the only question on your mind is “Is this a gripping thriller?”, stop reading this review now and just order the book. I was swept along for the most part, and had to stop myself from jumping ahead a few dozen pages to see how it would end. But as a nitpicking critic, I also want to list my areas of dissatisfaction. The first was simply that midway through, I had guessed part of the solution: not all the details, but the broad set-up. (Without giving much away, it has a touch of old-world melodrama, which makes me wonder if it came easily to me because I grew up with mainstream Hindi cinema.) And while it can be good for the ego to feel like you’re a step or two ahead of the characters, it can also hinder your enjoyment of a breakneck thriller, especially when the author stretches things out and provides two or three cliffhangers where one would have sufficed; the revelations involving DNA test results made me especially impatient and felt more Dan Brownish than was necessary.
The other problem was that I wished we had learnt a little more about the inner conflicts of Lylie and her two sets of “grandparents”. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Bussi should have compromised on his principal task – keeping the reader’s hair on edge – by getting self-consciously solemn or introspective. I just felt that once he had this particular premise in place – with its potential for examining the nature-nurture question, the class divide and the workings of guilt and regret, among other things – he could have done a little more with it. “We all hang on desperately to life even when there’s no hope left,” one character says to another near the end. I wish the relevance of this thought – and a few others – to this story had been addressed more directly.
Otherwise, Bussi does a fine job of throwing in red herrings – in making us think, for instance, that the secret of Lylie’s identity is so important that people might be murdered for it. Or at creating the impression that there might be more to the whole thing than meets the eye: could the plane crash have been part of a terrorist plot directed at a big business family? Might the Lylie story be further complicated by infidelities within her biological family? There are wry – sometimes overdone – touches of meta-commentary in the narrative (Marc wonders exasperatedly why the detective couldn’t simply have set down the facts of the case instead of writing his journal in the style of a potboiler). And, in what I thought was a hat-tip to Stieg Larsson’s immensely popular creation Lisbeth Salander, there is also a petulant, foul-mouthed woman-child named Malvina who starts off as Marc’s adversary, then becomes a reluctant travel companion. She is only a supporting character here, but don’t be too surprised if she returns in a future Bussi novel.