The three books in Pierre Lemaitre’s trilogy featuring police detective Commandant Camille Verhoeven share not only a protagonist but also an underlying warning: nothing is ever as it first appears. In Irene we meet a murderer who takes his inspiration from crime fiction, whilst in Alex a woman in peril transforms into a very different kind of character. Camille, the last book in the series, sees Verhoeven come perilously close to destroying his professional reputation.
Readers of the earlier books will be aware that Verhoeven does not have a happy past as far as relationships are concerned. His heavily pregnant wife becomes one of the killer’s victims in Irene, and it is this trauma which surely drives Verhoeven to the brink of professional suicide in Camille. The book begins with Verhoeven’s girlfriend Anne caught up in a robbery and subjected to a vicious beating. She survives, but it quickly becomes apparent that the perpetrators do not want to leave this witness alive; and Verhoeven finds himself locked into a desperate search for the guilty men before they can harm Anne again. He uses all of the resources at his disposal in order to find them, increasingly aware of how dangerously involved he is in this investigation and yet still unable to let it go.
Lemaitre also tells us the story from Anne’s point of view, and from the perspective of one of the men who attacked her. Indeed, perspective is an apt choice of word – as the novel progresses these different narrative strands converge in surprising (and seemingly contradictory) ways. The combined effect is akin to one of those mirror mazes you can still find on fairgrounds and in seaside resorts. You move confidently forward, expecting the path to be open ahead of you, when in fact it’s blocked by an invisible pane of glass that you slam your nose painfully against.
Camille was for me the least successful book in the trilogy, but that only underlines how extraordinary the other two novels are. Lemaitre’s writing is always precise and readable, and he’s not scared of confusing the reader, casually throwing in a grenade and blowing your preconceptions out of the water. It takes a bold writer to have his detective follow an entirely false lead, but that’s what Lemaitre does in Camille – and as the truth dawns on Verhoeven the reader also comes to realise just what they have missed. This last book in his trilogy underlines Lemaitre’s playful approach to the crime genre, and I very much look forward to reading whatever he writes next.