Alex by Peirre Lemaitre is a salutary lesson as to why you shouldn’t put down a book just because you find a passage unpalatable. I started reading it last year and found the violence done to the central character, the eponymous Alex, disturbing and too graphic for my taste. So I stopped reading the book, which proved to be big mistake. I say this, not only because it had rave reviews from a wide range of readers but also because I have now subsequently rest the book, prompted by the publication of its prequel, Irene.
Irene is is the story of Commander Verhoeven of the Paris Police Nationale. A murderer has killed two women in a bloodbath that shocks even the most hardened of police detectives. The murder appears to have been planned down to the last detail with meticulous care to ensure that police are unable to find any forensic evidence. However, a fake fingerprint found at the scene links the crime to an earlier murder which had the press whipped into a frenzy of speculation. A journalist, Buisson, irritated by Verhoeven’s brusque manner publishes a series of articles taunting police incompetency in the latest case. But Verhoeven has more pressing concerns: a crime fiction academic has noticed a similarity between the murders and James Ellroy’s book, The Black Dahlia. While initially dismissed as coincidence, when more murders are identified, showing disturbing similarities to other crime novels, the team realise they are dealing with a devious mind whose primary aim is to provoke and ensnare Verhoeven.
Where to start with this book? First of all the title, Irene. It’s the name of Verhoeven’s wife and it’s clearly deliberate that the reader knows, from the start, that she’ll be a key figure in the novel. It makes the tension almost unbearable but also completely compelling. But her character is only part of it; the police investigation team are a fascinating mix of personalities, from the wealthy Louis to the chronically stingy Armand. How the team interacts with each other is key to how this novel is elevated above other police narratives.
I’m generally not a fan of books that reference other novels. However, I’m prepared to make an exception for Irene, not least as some of my favourite crime novels are mentioned. One murder is discovered to have echoes of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna, another of William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw. It’s a book to delight crime fiction aficionados and I thought it truly wonderful. It’s easily shaping up to be my book of the year. One caveat: it is a brutal and grim read. I don’t like the excessive portrayal of violence against women. You get it here. But, all I can say, is that the brutality seems appropriate to the narrative.
The quality of Irene prompted me to take another look at Alex. In doing so, it meant I read the books in order that they’d been written. I don’t intend to write a review of the book here. It rightly won the CWA International Dagger last year and other reviewers have summed up the book as well as I could. Have a look at The Independent, Words Beyond Borders, Eurocrime and Crime Scraps. Suffice to say, I agree with them all. It’s a book to be read and savoured. However, once again you need to be able to stomach the violence.
Thanks to Quercus for my review copies. The book was translated by Frank Wynne.