Pierre Lemaitre, ‘Irene’ (2006)

Irene coverI was blown away by Pierre Lemaitre’s Alex (you can read what I thought of it right here), so naturally had high hopes for the sequel. Or rather, prequel – Irene is Lemaitre’s first novel, but for some reason the English versions were published the other way round. Why was Alex translated first? Perhaps because it’s a more shocking and attention-grabbing thriller than Irene (which is not all hearts and flowers itself – far from it). But what the books’ re-arrangement does do is to imbue Irene with an enormous sense of foreboding. In Alex, Commandant Camille Verhoeven, the lead investigator, is mourning the death of his beloved and heavily pregnant wife. In Irene, we find out what happened to her.

Or do we? Like its predecessor/successor, Irene is a somewhat tricksy book, although I mean that term entirely as a compliment. Lemaitre came to crime writing in his late 40s, having previously taught literature – meaning that he is not only incredibly familiar with the genre, but also able to play and twist its various tropes and cliches. Whereas in Alex Lemaitre played with the idea of what it means to be a victim, in Irene, the focus widens to consider the place of crime fiction in the modern literary landscape, and its value as a legitimate art-form.

In Irene, Verhoeven and his team must track down a man who is killing women in homage to a number of classic crime novels, arranging their bodies in imitation of key scenes from American Psycho, The Black Dahlia and other books. Whilst carrying out the investigation, Verhoeven must also deal with a hostile and critical press, who dub the killer ‘The Novelist’ – a pseudonym that takes on increasingly complex levels of meaning as the novel progresses. In less capable hands, this plot could have been derivative and little more than a gimmick – but Lemaitre’s touch stays light throughout the novel, and his admiration for the works which inspire Irene is clear from the very beginning.

Behind the investigation sits Verhoeven’s relationship with his wife, pregnant with their first child. One reviewer lamented the lack of development of Irene’s character, but I’m not sure I agree. Whilst she may only feature in a few scenes, these are key, and she is arguably the centre of the novel – Verhoeven is clearly besotted with her, and the passages where they are together or where he reflects on their relationship are genuinely touching. Without wishing to spoil any surprises, do look out for a passage early on in the book where the narrator describes how Verhoeven and Irene first met. This is revisited later on, in a way that is surprising; it also pushed me to reconsider almost everything that had gone before. As in Alex, there’s the sudden feeling that the ground beneath one’s feet has become treacherous; and one must proceed with utmost caution, or be sucked into the bog.

This moment is akin to another classic of the crime genre, this time a film – Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects. Towards the end, it becomes clear that the story Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint has been spinning us for the last 100 minutes may be much more complex than it first appears. On my DVD of the film, there’s a fascinating interview with Kevin Spacey, who describes what he was trying to do when playing the role of Verbal. He likens it to going to the theatre, and watching the same production from different seats – the experience changes, depending on where you view it from. Once you’ve seen the movie once, Verbal’s actions take on an entirely different meaning when you see them again, watching the film for a second time.

Pierre_LemaitreLemaitre pulls this kind of stunning magic trick in both Alex and Irene, and I can’t wait to see what he does next. The last book in the trilogy, Sacrifices, is available in France; there’s no word yet on an English translation, and I hope they don’t leave it too long. But if they do, it’s a great reason for me to dig out my Tricolore school text books. Vive Verhoeven!



  1. AGREED. I don’t understand why Irene was published secondary to Alex. At any rate, I look forward to reading it. I loved Alex as well. I guess there’s some kind of rule where they only publish the bestselling novel first or something.

    Are you a fan of Fred Vargas yet? I am really enjoying her work now. She’s a scholar as well and adds in some bits of history and quotes from other French scholars. Excellents writers both who write like they know what their doing (ok their translators but you know what I mean).

    I like the reference to The Usual Suspects.

  2. I read Lemaitre in French, so can’t comment on the translation. Irene (Travail soigné in French) is graphically, almost gratuitously violent, sadistic even with the dismemberment of body parts, etc. Some Amazon.fr readers have stated that if this had been the first Lemaitre they had read, they would not have wanted to read any more. Alex is, in my opinion, the best, because at least it has a moral ending, and an explanation for the violence. I’ve just finished Sacrifice and don’t recommend it, even if it does get translated into English. It is also obsessed with the dismemberment of body parts, but it is also slow, sluggish even, and does not grip. I will be reading Lemaitre’s Goncourt prizewinning novel Au Revoir Là Haut next, but I’ve had enough of the crime fiction. He writes well, but the books are too violent. I’m told Michel Bussi is excellent but don’t know if he’s been translated into English.

  3. Interesting. I can’t disagree with you on the violence – both books are very graphic. But ‘Irene’ is intriguing because of the revelations that come near the end (and which I won’t spoil here) – these suggest that the violence we’ve seen previously isn’t actually all that it appears. I enjoyed the way the Lemaitre played with our expectations for a crime novel, which in itself is unusual – and, for me, was enough to justify the earlier graphic scenes. I’m looking forward to ‘Sacrifices’ very much…

    Thanks for the tip re: Michel Bussi – I’m not familiar with him, but will have to investigate further.

  4. […] Pierre Lemaitre, Irene – Okay, this is bit of a cheat. Originally published in France in 2006, Irene wasn’t translated into English until earlier this year, largely off the back of the success of Lemaitre’s Alex (which I also reviewed, and is also well worth a look). The books were translated in reverse order; Irene is the first book in Lemaitre’s Camille Verhoeven trilogy, with the last part scheduled to be published in English early next year. So start here, with Commandant Verhoeven up against a killer who uses crime fiction as his inspiration. So far, so meta, so French – but don’t let this tricksy-sounding summary put you off. The book is violent but also touching, especially the emotional bond between Verhoeven and his wife; and the revelation towards the end will either make you laugh in surprise, or toss the book across the room. Review here. […]

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