Alex, a French novel written by Pierre Lemaitre and translated by Frank Wynne, was first published in 2012 in Britain. He’s expected to hit the US market this fall. Lemaitre is a teacher of literature who cites Dostoevsky and Proust among many writers as influences of his work. Alex is such a deceptively simple title for such a complex book. The novel is not for the light-hearted either. The story is part crime novel and part thriller. It is a brutally dark and harrowing read.
Plot: The story takes place in Paris and Commandant Camille Verhœven has just returned to work when he gets handed a kidnapping case. A young woman who goes by Alex has been abducted off the street and put inside a cage that hangs several feet off the floor in an abandoned warehouse. It’s a race against time to find her and save her. The slogan on the novel states that this is not a typical black and white mystery and that Alex is not a your typical victim. Alex is described as being very beautiful and there’s more to her that meets the eye as the detectives find out later.
There really isn’t a lot I can say about this book only that it is an engrossing read. The story is told in third person. The 400 pages that comprised this book flew by kind of fast. To get the full benefit of what this story has to offer is to know as little as possible about the plot. I will say that the story is fascinating. The plotting was well done with each development a jaw dropping surprise. My perception about certain things changed various times in the story.
The French so far seem to know how to plot their crime novels well. All the usual conventions of the genre were expertly circumvented. The author actually gave you more than what you would have expected. The story was unpredictable and just one of the themes he used in here would have taken up a whole book with somebody else’s pen. I hesitate to say that this book was “brilliant” because it’s a word that is easily bandied about in reviewing circles. You can decide that for yourself. It read almost perfectly with the exception of the brutality. At times this wasn’t an easy read. Yet I couldn’t put this book down.
The characters are well drawn and not so typical, especially the squat, scrawny, balding Camille Verhœven who stands at four feet eleven. He was one of my favorite characters in the story. He’s stubborn and short-tempered. A “pacifist with a brutal streak.” He didn’t want this case because of some personal baggage. Alex is another memorable character as well. As fellow reviewer at Raven Crime Reads put it: she makes Lisbeth Salander look like Mary Poppins. Agreed.
The story’s tone is what you would typically expect in a police procedural. There’s the usual police techniques and forensics. Plus there are elements that make this a thriller with the big break through leads and the police moving into action quickly. It is a race against the clock. The suspense at times was unbearable and the need to find the answers made this book hard to put down. From the way the book was written, motive was the biggest secret and I loved how it was dribbled out in piece meal fashion. Even down to the last page you were hit with a surprise. If that’s isn’t expert plotting I don’t know what is. And I loved how it ended, with a play on the truth vs. justice which are not always mutually exclusive objectives.
Criticism wise, what the novel lacked in some things like atmosphere, a little much in other things – brutal violence, it made up for in others – tight plotting, unpredictability, well drawn characters told in some urgency. There’s a nice balance of dialogue with introspection. A nice touch of human drama. I can gladly say that I didn’t come across a lot of repetition and the interrogation scenes were tension filled and moved the plot along just fine. The translation was excellent with a play on words and just enough humor to lighten up the tension. My grade is an A-. My first for the year.
The US acquired the rights to this book and it’s set for release in Sept 2013. I bought my copy from the UK. Mystery readers shouldn’t miss this one. From what I could ascertain from Google translate Wikipedia page, this is apart of a trilogy? I hope to read more by this writer as he has set the bar very high. Similar French writers that come to mind in terms of expert plotting and originality: Antonin Varenne and then there’s Fred Vargas
Other reviews: Raven Crime Reads has an excellent review up with no spoilers. Notes: The cover is the one that I liked better as some text are in French