Take the Train – ‘After the Crash’ by Michel Bussi

afterthecrashI wasn’t going to review After the Crash. It’s not very good and life’s too short. Then, in my (otherwise wonderful) local Waterstone’s I found it prominently displayed at the front of the shop. It had a card under it that said something like ‘Set to be the must-read thriller of the year.’ This was like red rag to a bull. There is no godly reason why this should be a ‘must-read’. I then remembered that the most read review on Robins Books is my non-complimentary analysis of I am Pilgrim, a novel I’ll never understand why people like.

If I came down with a bad case of diarrhoea, then I might see that After the Crash is an essential book to have by my side, though the paper wouldn’t be anywhere near as porous as the plot.  When the book arrived on my doorstep its premise sounded delicious. A plane has crashed in the French Alps, killing everybody on board. By the time I took the book down to read, the premise was creepily prescient. Life had overtaken art. More disturbing, on top of After the Crash on my to-be-read pile was How to Stay Alive, Matt Haig’s excellent memoir on dealing with depression. Cruel cosmic coincidence.

The opening of After the Crash is chilling. The recent tragedy in France made the description of a plane full of passengers crashing into a mountainside even more evocative. Possibly I should have stopped there. The rescue operation finds a baby girl. There were two babies on board the flight, one from a rich, one poor. Which one survived? The courts have to decide.

We pick up the action eighteen years later. A private investigator was hired to try to determine the true identity of the girl. To find hard evidence, where the court only found the balance of probability. He failed, and now feels the need to kill himself. As he places the gun against his head, he notices something on the newspaper report from the day of the crash, and the puzzle is solved. He puts the gun down, then sets out to tell his employers. Shortly after he is murdered.

That’s a damn intriguing set-up and I was very much looking forward to finding out what happened.

I shouldn’t have bothered. The book moves from intriguing, through improbable, to ridiculous as it progresses. A major problem with After the Crash is that its central device is a memoir written by the private investigator. Whilst it’s convenient that one of the main players in the book wrote out everything in the style of a modern thriller, it isn’t very believable. Another central player, Mark, is handed the book to read. He has the holy grail, the key to finding out everything the investigator knew, in his possession but at no point does he skip to the end to find out what happens. The memoir contains a DNA result that pretty much would give him the answer he’s desperate for. It’s there in bold type, but he never feels the need to flick through and take a look; scared of spoilers I suppose.

The question he wants answered – Have I been sleeping with my sister?

This is a strange state of affairs. It seems to be the contention of the book, that it’s fine to have sex with the girl you grew up with, if it turns out you don’t have the same parents after all. Dude, it’s not OK, and despite what Bussi might have us believe, your grandmother isn’t going to think it is. Neither is the tight-knit community that you both grew up in. This veneer thin level of characterisation is endemic in the book. Characters behave as they need to in order to advance the plot. The rich are portrayed as sociopathic baddies, whilst the hard-working, hard-up socialists, glow like the saints they don’t believe in.

Shallow characters aside, there’s still the kernel of an interesting plot, especially when characters obliquely connected with the investigation start being killed off. As the possibilities pare down though the plot becomes shakier and shakier, until at the point of the final reveal I was left wondering why I bothered at all. The culmination of the book requires too great a suspension of belief. With some of the twists removed, the conclusion could have been satisfying. It’s hard to explain why I felt the novel failed without giving spoilers, but essentially, whilst each step in plot progression follows on logically from the previous one, the overall journey from A – Z makes little sense when looked at as a whole.

It’s possible the whole book is meant to be metaphor for a plane crash. You begin the journey, expectant about what lies ahead. The story takes off, climbing upwards as tension and excitement mounts, then you cruise comfortably towards your destination. Before long  you start looking at your watch, wondering what time you arrive. You start to notice something is wrong, the narrative turns downwards, heading out of control, faster and faster, before smashing into the mountainside, a total wreck. I wish I’d bailed earlier. I carried on to the end in the hope that Bussi could pull the plane back up, but he never does. Bump yourself on to your next book; this is one flight best avoided.

Many Thanks to the team at W&N for sending me a copy of this book




4 thoughts on “Take the Train – ‘After the Crash’ by Michel Bussi

  1. I don’t know about the book, but I thoroughly enjoyed your review. The central mystery remains, for me at least, if the novel is so bad, why are Waterstone’s stocking it, and why are they calling it the novel the “Must read novel” of the whatever. I am, although few people know it, a published novelist but I don’t think I’ve got anywhere near being stocked by said bookshop, despite a number of quite favourable reviews, so I wonder on what basis they choose their books at all. I am now following you Blog, because the reviews are positively entertaining, regardless of the books you review.

    1. It is, I suppose, impossible to predict what will shed bucket loads. This book has done well in France, I believe. The premise alone suggests it’s a good read. I guess if you can find a couple respected reviewers who can overlook a novel’s deficiencies and start to build a reputation, copies start to shift.

      Thrillers work on their ability to keep you suspending your belief. They are usually preposterous, once you start noticing failings, they tend to unravel completely.

  2. Loved this review – just written my own, and I couldn’t agree more with some of the points you made! It had so much potential but lacked character development, everything seemed to happen in the last third making the first half or so feel as though it hadn’t got going – plus I don’t know about you, but there was a particular moment when it felt very obvious how the novel would end and who Lylie was/wasn’t. I think ultimately I was disappointed that it didn’t deliver on a great premise.

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