If Winston Smith's Room 101 nightmare in Nineteen Eighty-Four proved too disturbing an image for you, then it's probably best to steer clear of Alex by Pierre Lemaitre, the first thriller by this popular French author to be translated into English. The eponymous heroine, beautiful and alone, tries to tell herself that she isn't being watched by the man across the street. She's almost convinced, and then she's bundled into an anonymous white van, taken to an abandoned warehouse and subjected to an ordeal that at times is too disturbingly awful to read, let alone imagine. To say too much would be to give away the horrors of Lemaitre's horribly well-thought-out kidnapping, but here's a taster of Alex's thoughts. "A wet rat is even more terrifying than a dry one: the fur looks dirtier, the eyes beadier, seemingly more vicious. When wet, the long tail looks slimy, as though it is a different animal, a snake."
Alex attempts to escape while Commandant Camille Verhoeven tries to solve the mystery of her kidnapping before it's too late: all he knows is that a woman was abducted from the street. He doesn't know who she is or why she was taken – there are no ransom notes, and the likelihood of finding her alive is trickling away with every hour he waits.
The winner of countless French crime-writing prizes, Lemaitre is far too canny to join the ranks of thriller authors who merely revel in disturbing details and gory crimes. Where another novel would have finished, Alex is just beginning, and the book moves from read-as-fast-as-you-can horror to an intricately plotted race to a dark truth.
Lemaitre – and his able translator, Frank Wynne – also find time to flesh out the cast thoroughly. Camille, the detective hero, is a victim of his mother's smoking during pregnancy and has never grown taller than 4ft 11in. He is pugnacious, complicated, driven and, irritatingly for his superiors, brilliant. As Lemaitre puts it, "when he practises modesty and restraint he can be a little theatrical, a little too Racine". His eclectic band of helpers range from the penny-pinching Armand, who swipes cigarettes from new recruits and sweets from the shopkeepers he's questioning, to a wonderfully realised local policeman who has a habit of "peppering his conversation with English words… 'personally, I find it "amusing", as they say in English… 'It operated as a brothel – very "discreet", as they say in English'". Everyone is unobtrusively brought to life through their quirks and oddities – especially the magistrate who points out to Camille that they don't know if they're dealing with a male or female criminal. "When he makes an insinuation like this, reminding them nothing is proven, he invariably contrives to have a moment of silence so that everyone understands the significance of the subtext."
There's humour here, and characters to return to, but really Alex is about thrills. And as the novel barrels triumphantly towards its unexpected but satisfying conclusion, it's in this respect that it delivers.
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- French title: Alex
- Translated by Frank Wynne
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B : cleverly turned -- but wallows a bit much in the appalling
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
- "It is quickly apparent that Lemaitre is worthy of all the fuss. In Frank Wynne's sympathetic translation, various subtle variations of the crime novel are handled with aplomb, such as an examination of the nature of identity (the enigmatic Alex). And Alex herself turns out to be the author's ace-in-the-hole." - Barry Forshaw, The Independent
- "Revenge narratives go all the way back to the Greeks, but it�s the vagina dentata component that sets a specimen like Alex apart, as Lemaitre adapts Larsson�s blueprint with moves of his own. (...) In Frank Wynne�s assured translation, there�s even a raffish quality to the prose. (...) But in the end, it�s still a formula, one that manipulates women as if they were the avatars in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider -- and it has already worn thin." - Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review
- "(T)he book moves from read-as-fast-as-you-can horror to an intricately plotted race to a dark truth. (...) There's humour here, and characters to return to, but really Alex is about thrills. And as the novel barrels triumphantly towards its unexpected but satisfying conclusion, it's in this respect that it delivers." - Alison Flood, The Observer
- "(W)hat sets it apart from the current crop of crime fiction is how it utterly confounds our expectations and challenges our moral certainties. (...) Alex is a book that will make you think, and one you'll not easily forget." - Christine Cremen, Sydney Morning Herald
- "Lemaitre makes no claims to relevance. His tale, as cold as those of Maupassant, with a strong sense of the nightmarish possibilities of family life, speaks very effectively for itself." - Sean O'Brien, Times Literary Supplement
- "Tricky, disturbing and ultimately affecting, Alex is a welcome addition to the rising tide of European crime fiction that has followed in the wake of Stieg Larsson�s death." - Bill Sheehan, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Alex begins in fairly traditional thriller-mode, with chapters alternating between a woman who is the victim of a terrible crime and the police investigation into that crime. The clock is ticking: the victim worries how long she can hold out, the police worry if they can find her in time.
The investigation is led by the diminutive Camille Verhœven. Nearing fifty, he's the son of a famous artist -- whose smoking habit is blamed for stunting his growth, leaving him an unimposing four foot eleven (a generous two inches more than the original French edition has it, in which he stands at a mere 145cm) -- and a widower. For several years now, Camille has made clear: "No kidnappings". He's fine handling murders, but he: "wants his dead well and truly dead, corpses with no comeback." What's his problem ? The horrific death of his wife, Irène, some years earlier, while she was in the last month of her pregnancy -- and, yes, she was kidnapped -- a crime that nearly destroyed him.
[It should be noted at this point that Alex is the second Verhœven novel, and that the first, Travail soigné, culminates in guess whose kidnapping and murder..... US/UK publishers of crime fiction in translation continue to show no concern whatsoever for either authors or readers in presenting series -- including series such as this one, which involve considerable character development from book to book -- out of sequence, and, indeed, Alex has been published in English before (the at this time still untranslated) Travail soigné. Arguably, MacLehose made the 'right' choice here: Alex has been successful, and it even shared the 2013 CWA International Dagger award; perhaps it is the more immediately accessible title. However, given how significant the story related in the first volume in this series is in shaping the central character, I would think it's hard for any reader not to be disappointed and outraged that the publisher has chosen this route. (Personally, I think there's no hell hot enough for publishers who pull this kind of crap -- and I'm surprised the Crime Writers' Association doesn't censure, rather than honor them for this reader- and writer-unfriendly conduct.)]
Camille isn't given much of a choice here: a woman was abducted off the street, every second counts, and the man who should get the case is off in Lyon at a seminar. So Camille takes on the case.
There was a witness, but other than seeing the woman bundled off in a white van he's not much help. Neither van nor woman can be readily identified, and the police struggle to find anything to go on. It's a slow, painstaking process before even the smallest pieces fit into place.
The alternating chapters already reveal more to the reader. The victim is the eponymous Alex. She's introduced trying on wigs, and the fact that she likes to change her looks is the first clue that there's perhaps more to Alex than immediately meets the eye, too. And there's also, right from the start, a man who has his eye on her. She's seen him several times, but doesn't get quite suspicious enough before she goes out to dinner by herself and, on the way home, finds herself brutally attacked and whisked off.
Soon enough Alex is naked, in a wooden cage too small to come close to stretching out in in any direction, suspended six feet off the floor. She has no idea what to expect, but she expects the worst. Her kidnapper doesn't communicate much, but he seems to have a relatively simple and clear idea of what he intends, explaining:
"I'm going to watch you die, you filthy whore."There's a bit of water for her to drink, and some kind of kibble to gnaw on (which makes her sick) but otherwise he just pretty much leaves her dangling, showing up occasionally to watch and take some pictures. But for the most part she's on her own. Oh -- except for the rats, who take an increasing interest in what must look like an enormous, tasty slab of meat to them.
Why this man is doing this to her isn't clear -- but eventually she realizes who he is. His simple plan seems pretty foolproof, and while things don't quite work out as planned the man feels pretty confident that he's achieved what he wanted too; still, he does not get to watch her die.
The police investigation crawls along, but eventually they identify first the van, then the kidnapper, then the location where Alex is being held. Each discovery, however, doesn't quite lead to the desired outcome, and by the time they get to where Alex was being held Alex is nowhere to be found.
Camille continues to investigate what has become a more complicated case -- and despite being horrified by what the woman went through can't help but think:
This girl, there's something not right about her.Indeed, even when they think they've identified the kidnapped woman they realize that there's more to her. Alex isn't quite who she seems: different appearances and different names ensure that she's hard to pin down (and to find).
What was a kidnap case turns into one of serial murder -- horrific and seemingly random crime. Camille and his team put the pieces together, working tirelessly (well, à la française: "They're working ten-hour days" ...), and eventually everything falls into place. Very neatly and cleverly into place.
Yes, Alex is an artfully constructed novel of an artfully constructed revenge-fantasy. It should be noted that this is not a novel for the squeamish. Really not. Let me put it this way: the rats, and Alex worrying about them gnawing away at her, that's the easy-to-take stuff. And while perhaps there was no other way, what Lemaitre offers as the trigger that lies behind the whole structure is so beyond-words-awful that it leaves more than just a bad aftertaste and makes one wonder whether the book was worth it.
Alex offers some insight into the French judicial system which, as a Note on the Translation explains, is: "fundamentally different from that of the United States", specifically with regards to criminal prosecution, and the magistrate here, Vidard, comes close to being solely a figure of ridicule -- but he has the final words on the matter, and even Camille can smile and nod in agreement about how things turned out. Alex is a novel in which truth does not quite prevail but there can be no claim of any miscarriage of justice, which is definitely served. It's an unsettling -- and often very, very ugly -- path that brings readers to this conclusion, but one can't help but be impressed by what Lemaitre has pulled off.
Alex is pretty solid with the thriller-fundamentals. The writing and plot are, to some extent, by the numbers -- Lemaitre is no crime-writing-natural, and it shows -- but especially as far as structure and plot go he's pretty ambitious with those numbers. As far as Alex's fate goes, he surprises more than once, showing a willingness to think at least a bit outside the usual thriller-box in how a main character is used. His reliance on the near-unspeakable is a bit much to burden the story with, but then this is a story of extreme action and reactions. Camille is a decent leading man, though presumably the more unusual aspects of the character (the shadow of his painter-mom, his small size) would be easier to take if readers had been introduced to him more gradually and fully -- through the previous volume in this series, for example.
Quite well-paced and with a clever design to it, it's the writing in Alex that ultimately falls just a bit short in making Lemaitre's reliance on so much that is heinous somehow palatable. He almost pulls it off, but some of what's served up is simply too appalling -- and, more inexcusably, too simply (basically just sensationally) presented -- for all the cleverness behind it to make up for it.
- M.A.Orthofer, 2 November 2013
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Links:Alex: Reviews: Other books by Pierre Lemaitre under review: Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
French author Pierre Lemaitre was born in 1951.
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© 2013-2017 the complete review
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