How easy is it to reinvigorate a shopworn formula? One way is to shoot each familiar effect full of adrenalin. The other is to inject subtly innovative elements into the detail, subverting the clichés. Alex by Pierre Lemaitre is a book that has it both ways, and succeeds in having its cake and eating it – yes, we’ve had the brutal kidnapping of a young woman before (Hans Koppel’s bleak She’s Never Coming Back and Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy, to name but two), but the victimised woman here is very different from her victimised predecessors. And although the details of her kidnapping and incarceration are familiar – as is the desperate police search to find her – Lemaitre has something very surprising up his sleeve, which explains the feverish word-of-mouth that the book quickly engendered.
Alex is an intriguing young woman who is introduced to us in something of a state of flux. She appears to be constantly attempting to change her identity – and her appearance – for reasons that are obscure, but seem more playful than calculated. After a flirtation with a man in a restaurant, she is assaulted and bundled into a white van where she undergoes a savage beating. The scenes of the kidnapping that follow are handled with disturbing force by the writer – however, unlike (say) the Hans Koppel mentioned above, the effect of these scenes is not dispiriting, but relentlessly gripping. The man tasked with Alex’s rescue is Commandant Camille Verhoerven, and we might be forgiven for thinking ‘here we go again’: tormented copper, personal tragedy, uneasy with subordinates. This detective, however, is something new: Verhoerven is Napoleon-sized, and congenitally stunted – and Lemaitre skilfully communicates the thought processes of a man driven by his nature to prove himself bigger than those around him in everything except height.
Familiar elements aside, it was quickly apparent that Lemaitre was worthy of all the fuss, as has been subsequently affirmed. In Frank Wynne’s sympathetic translation, various subtle detonations of the crime novel are handled with aplomb, such as an examination of the nature of identity, as represented by the enigmatic Alex. And Alex herself turns out to be the author’s ace-in-the-hole, for reasons that will not be revealed here. By page 200 you may believe that you’re moving to a pulse-raising conclusion. But you will be wrong; in some senses, the novel will have only just started…
Reviewed by Barry Forshaw
Written by Pierre Lemaitre
Translated from the French by Frank Wynne
Published by MacLehose Press (2013)
Barry Forshaw’s books include Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide, the Keating Award-winning Brit Noir and Nordic Noir. Other work: Death in a Cold Climate, Sex and Film and the British Crime Writing encyclopedia (also a Keating Award winner). He edits Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk).
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