Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Wednesday, August 27, 2013: Maximum Shelf: Alex

Quercus: Alex by Pierre Lemaitre

Quercus: Alex by Pierre Lemaitre

Quercus: Loss of Innocence by Richard North Patterson

Quercus: Mage's Blood by David Hair


by Pierre Lemaitre, trans. by Frank Wynne

Alex begins like any number of other psychological thrillers: an attractive young woman is snatched off the streets of Paris by a strange man. He takes her to an abandoned warehouse and tells her he's going to watch her die. He puts her inside a small wooden crate--too narrow for her to lie flat, too shallow for her to sit up--and she quickly winds up "curled up on herself, almost into a ball." After several days of being given only water and dog food, Alex is in a weakened state. Rats, sensing a new prey, descend upon the helpless captive.

Pierre Lemaitre has several surprises in store for mystery fans, though, starting with the police investigator leading the investigation, Commandant Camille Verhoeven. Maybe it's not so unexpected that Camille doesn't want the case, that he's determined to have nothing to do with kidnappings--his wife, Irène, died after being abducted some time ago. And it's hardly a shock to find out that he's a tenacious detective who doesn't get along with many of his colleagues, especially superior officers. But you probably weren't expecting him to be 4'11", or a brilliant sketch artist--two traits he got from his mother, a painter who smoked throughout her pregnancy, stunting his growth in the womb.

Camille is irritable under the best of circumstances, but this case is particularly aggravating--at first, he and his fellow police officers don't even know who the victim is. With the bare minimum of clues, they're finally able to figure out the identity of the culprit, but then he throws himself off a bridge rather than let them take him into custody. And the pictures on his cell phone tell them what he's done to Alex, but not where she is.

That seems like it's a spoiler, but it's the least of the plot twists Lemaitre has prepared for us. As the search for Alex continues, Camille and his team uncover a much more disturbing web of crimes--many of which are recounted in details as grisly as the scenes in which Alex must face off against the increasingly hungry rats. It soon becomes clear that she's more than a helpless victim, but who is she, really? Does the truth about her past explain the abduction, or does it point to something more? "This girl," Camille tells his supervisor, Le Guen, "there's something not right about her." At the time, he doesn't know how right he is.

Lemaitre's sudden directional shifts will earn Alex comparisons to Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, but the similarities only go so far. It might also be useful to think of Stieg Larsson's Millennium series, not least of all because of the horrors Alex endures. But while Larsson's novels were often contemptuous of regular law enforcement as a piece of a larger misogynist culture, Lemaitre is generally sympathetic toward his police. He lingers over the gruff camaraderie Camille shares with Le Guen--"they're like an old married couple, which is something of a no-win situation for two men pushing fifty, both of whom are single"--and their mutual distaste for the judicial magistrate who keeps sticking his nose into the case. ("At least we get to deal with him as an adult," Le Guen observes after one particularly annoying meeting. "Can you imagine what an irritating a**hole he must have been at school?")

Frank Wynne's translation moves the story along briskly as Lemaitre oscillates between Alex and Camille's points of view. Some particular nuances of the French judicial system are covered in an introductory note and glossary, so the narrative doesn't get bogged down in digressive explanations. Instead, Lemaitre uses those opportunities to delve into personality sketches and backstory revelations. While Camille and Alex may be the most vividly drawn characters in the novel, much of the secondary cast--especially Camille's colleagues--are granted distinctive flourishes that make them feel like actual partners in the investigation rather than additional set dressing.

Alex is the first Lemaitre novel to be translated into English, but a little research turns up the fact that it's actually the second about Camille, with another sequel already out in France. In this story alone, readers can feel the potential in these characters; just as any one of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels was the tip of an enormous narrative iceberg, Alex leaves us with the sense that there's much left to learn about Camille and his colleagues. Here's hoping we'll get the chance. --Ron Hogan

Quercus/MacLehose Press, $24.95, hardcover, 9781623650001, September 3, 2013

Quercus: The Deliverance of Evil by Roberto Costantini

Pierre Lemaitre: The Nerve to Write Novels

"I should never have studied literature so much," Pierre Lemaitre says of his life as a teacher, before he began writing crime fiction. "When you analyze closely Tolstoy, Proust, Dumas, Dickens, James, Flaubert, Woolf, Hugo, Dos Passos, Pushkin, Thomas Mann or Zweig... how could you not be impressed?" he asks. "You have to have some nerve to think 'I, too, am going to write a novel.' You need a dose of madness which, unfortunately, I did not have." And then, he explains, "a woman entered my life who thumped the table and said, 'Get to work!' I was not crazy enough to start working but I was sufficiently docile to at least try...." The effort has paid off--Lemaitre recently won the Crime Writers Association International Dagger Award. While Alex is Lemaitre's first novel to be translated into English, he has several other hits in his native France, including other novels featuring Camille Verhoeven, the police investigator whose role in this story is frequently overshadowed by the kidnapping victim he's trying to track down.

How did you arrive at the character of Alex, and what drew you into telling her story?

It's often the character that creates the structure of a novel. For Alex, it was the contrary. I wanted to play with one of the most important driving forces behind crime novels: the identification of the reader with the hero. In the first act, the main character would be positive. Then, in Act 2, the character appears negative and, finally, in the third act the reader notices that the character is actually both. The real difficulty was to avoid making the reader start to hate Alex in Act 2. Therefore, she had to be as endearing as possible--her weaknesses needed to be emphasized--so that the reader wouldn't consider her entirely negative when she happens to be such a ruthless criminal.

Once the structure was stable, I started looking for a character who would fit it. That's how Alex was born.

Alex is not the first novel you've written about Camille Verhoeven, the detective at the center of the story. How did you hit upon the character of a 4'11" police commandant as the protagonist of a series?

The model is my own father. I have no imagination....

Is Alex's dominant presence in this narrative common to the novels, or does Camille play a larger role in the other stories?

These are a trilogy, and Alex is the second novel. Camille appeared in my first novel, Irène, and he comes to the end of his literary career in Camille. The trilogy will then be complete--but not entirely. Dumas's "Three Musketeers" were, in point of fact, four. As a tribute to this author, who really mattered to me, my trilogy will also run to four volumes. A fourth part will find its place between Alex and Camille. Faithful to the suggestion of [Quercus publisher] Christopher MacLehose that the titles of my novels be first names, this novella will be called "Rosy & John."

The trilogy is based upon two main ideas. The first is that Camille is not the hero of these stories. Recurrent characters are often the heroes of their adventures (from Sherlock Holmes to Columbo, from Lloyd Hopkins to Wallander or Mikael Blomkvist). I wanted a different kind of hero, and that started out with the conception of a character who isn't the hero of his own life. The second idea was that the trilogy will consist of three women's lives (Irène, Alex, Anne). And I wanted Camille's destiny (he isn't a seducer, or is he...?) to be understandable through the destiny of these three women who, successively, occupy his life. 

You've said that "crime fiction is to the 21st century what adventure novels were to the 19th." Can you elaborate on that?

Serial novels from the French 19th century were gathering three main characteristics. Intended for a very popular readership, they would propose adventures with suspense and they were, thanks to the faits divers they would often be based upon, the sounding board of the social climate of their time. That is more or less what crime novels do today, in France and elsewhere.

Who are some of your favorite crime writers, both internationally and in France?

In France: Caryl Férey, Thierry Jonquet, Didier Daeninckx. Abroad: William McIlvaney, David Peace, George Pelecanos, Carlo Lucarelli, Marcello Fois, Georgi Vaïner.

Are there any other French novelists you believe American readers should know about?

I don't know if authors such as Marie NDiaye, Jean Echenoz and Louis Guilloux are translated in the U.S. It would be a pity if they were not. [Editorial note: Marie NDiaye's Three Strong Women and Louis Guilloux's OK, Joe are available in English-language editions, as are several novels by Jean Echenoz, including a new book, 1914, that will be published in early 2014.]

You've said that French men don't really read much fiction, which is one of the reasons you write primarily for French women. What are your hopes in gaining new readers among British and American women with Alex, and beyond?

I hope that there will be many of them. Very, very many....  --Ron Hogan

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