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Image from the Alex book coverThere has been much fuss and fanfare about Pierre Lemaitre’s thriller Alex. Much of it has focused on the twisting, fast-as-you-can-read plot. And deservedly so.

I’ll leave it to other reviews to explain those unpredictable twists. Without spoiling it, the plot is in a sense in three acts…

  1. The kidnapping of a beautiful young woman in Paris
  2. A serial killer is on the loose
  3. Then a third story begins to emerge

Enough to say that it confounds expectations.

The main cop character is Police Commandant Camille Verhoeven. He is packed with flaws and strengths:

  • He is volatile yet brilliant
  • He has a tragic past: his wife, too, was kidnapped and murdered
  • After that he had a nervous breakdown, “shunted from psychiatric clinics to convalescent homes”
  • He is also four foot eleven tall, “positively stunted” with foetal hypotrophy, for which he can blame his chainsmoking mother
  • She was also a leading artist, and left him with an exceptional talent for drawing

That adds up to a lot of tics and traits. The last time I can recall a detective who liked to sketch his victims / suspects / clients / colleagues it was the private eye Eddie Shoestring on BBC TV.

As crime stories go, Lemaitre’s has plenty of shock and gore. Again without spoiling the plot, there are memorable scenes involving wooden crates, blood, battery acid, screwdrivers and hammers, and above all rats. Yes, rats. Any film version (it’s only a matter of time) will have problems capturing the graphic horror.

Think twice before buying this book as a Christmas present for your gran.

It’s not all dark though. The author has fun with various police sidekick characters and stereotypes: the rich, suave, flashy cop; the stingey, scruffy cadger cop; the gruff young investigating magistrate who thinks he knows it all and was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

The translation

“Alex” is a superb example of the use of the present tense to give a novel immediacy and high impact. Lemaitre is a prolific author. Surprisingly, this is his first novel to have an English version (there are four others in the Verhoeven series).

His translator is the Irish writer Frank Wynne, who also provides a helpful note at the beginning about the French judicial system and police structure.

Frank comes from County Sligo in Ireland. He has frequently collaborated with leading authors such as Michel Houellebecq, and Marcelo Figueras’s Kamchatka.

He has deservedly won tons of awards for his translation work with French and Spanish authors, and has also written the non-fiction book I Was Vermeer, a rattling yarn about an art forger who fooled the Nazis. Your granny might like that one.

by Pierre Lemaitre
MacLehose Press, 2013 (paperback)