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Pierre Lemaitre, ‘Alex’ (2011)

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After last week’s review of The A26, the Francophilia continues at WAYRF Towers with this stunning book from Pierre Lemaitre. I found out about it thanks to this list in The Guardian of the ’10 best crime novels in translation’; if the other books on the list maintain Lemaitre’s standard, I’ve a lot to thank Ann Cleeves for.

What’s extraordinary about Lemaitre’s book is the central character of Alex, a young lady who is not what she first seems. It’s been a long time since I’ve been so surprised and mystified by a character, who works to her own private agenda and absolutely refrains from sharing it with the reader. Once you know the whole story, it makes perfect sense; before then, you’re left wondering what the hell she’s going to do next.

The opening of the novel sees Alex attacked in the street, thrown into a van and kidnapped. It quickly becomes apparent that she is in mortal danger – her abductor strips her, beats her, and forces her into a wooden cage, which he then suspends from the ceiling in an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of Paris. ‘What are you going to do with me?‘ Alex asks. ‘I’m going to watch you die,’ is the only reply she is given.

Why is the manner of her abduction and confinement so extreme? In some ways, it’s Lemaitre playing with the conventions of the crime thriller – but the truth is much more complex. One of the pleasures of Alex is in not knowing what is around the corner, so I’ll leave the plot summary at that. But suffice to say that Alex proves herself to be extremely resourceful – so much so that, by the time you hit the halfway mark (Alex is just over 350 pages long), it’s as if you’re starting again, this time on a completely new novel, one where the ground is a lot more treacherous. To repeat the point I made above: Alex’s actions are extraordinary, thrilling, horrifying and baffling in equal measure. And the only way you’ll find out the truth about her is to read the book, right? Right?

Whilst Alex is the book’s centre, she is not the only memorable character. When she is taken, Commandant (a rank equivalent to Detective Chief Inspector in the UK) Camille Verhoeven is assigned to the case. This is a deliberate tactic by his superior officer, Le Guen – Verhoeven’s wife Irene was kidnapped and murdered some years before, a crime which naturally still haunts him. Verhoeven wears his anger and guilt on his sleeve, and the book is suffused with his aggression towards a world that allowed her death to happen.

The investigation in Alex is the first major one undertaken by Verhoeven after his wife’s death. ‘Since then, he’s only taken on minor cases: crimes of passion, brawls between colleagues, murder between neighbours.Cases where the deaths are behind you, not in front. No kidnappings. Camille wants his dead well and truly dead, corpses with no comeback.’ There’s an overwhelming feeling of frustration, as Verhoeven tries to find Alex and anticipate her next move. Despite his accurate deductions, he is destined to remain one step behind her, until the startling finale and the shocking final section of the book.

As well as his skills as an investigator, Verhoeven is also different physically. He is a dwarf, the result of his artist mother’s smoking during pregnancy. I have to admit that I recoiled slightly when Lemaitre initially described his disability, wary that this was another cynical thriller writer, trying too hard to make his detective ‘different’. Thankfully, my worries were unfounded; whilst a defining characteristic, Lemaitre is also careful not to let Verhoeven’s condition over-shadow the book. He is most certainly not a man we should feel sorry for – focused, driven, and obsessive, Verhoeven immerses himself in a case which not only brings some shocking revelations, but also helps him to come to terms with his wife’s death.

Having finished the book, I was delighted to learn that it is the first in a trilogy. The next in the series, Irene, will be available in English next month – a book which eerily takes its title from the name of Verhoeven’s murdered wife. This next installment will show what happened prior to Alex, and therefore promises to be a very dark book indeed. Lemaitre’s website describes the plot of Irene, where Verhoeven is on the trail of a killer and each murder is a homage to a classic crime novel.’ Normally, that’s just the sort of cliche that would make me throw a book against the wall – but having seen how masterfully Lemaitre wrought his prose in Alex, I now genuinely cannot wait. Roll on the 6 March.

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