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by Pierre Lemaitre and Frank Wynne, trans.
Macklehose, March 2013
354 pages
12.99 GBP
ISBN: 0857051873

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

From Georges Simenon to Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau – better known by her pseudonym of Fred Vargas – French crime writers have specialised in subversive and edgy plots, leavened by off-centre humour. Lemaitre, a former literature lecturer, already well known in his own country, is the newest to burst onto the English scene. ALEX, the middle book in the Camille Verhoeven trilogy, could establish him as a best-seller on both sides of the Channel.

This book has echoes of Edgar Alan Poe, the pace, power and angst of GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO and the bleak violence we associate with the noir school, plus an offbeat hero leading an equally mismatched team of detectives.

Brigade Criminelle Commandant Verhoeven – that's a DCI to us – suffers under two huge handicaps. The kidnap and murder of his pregnant wife led to a breakdown from which, although back at work, he still bears the mental scars. The other is his height – a mere four foot, eleven inches – which has led to something of a Napoleon complex and an outspokenness and barbed humour which hardly endears him to his superiors in the complicated French legal system. When he is assigned to investigate the abduction of a young woman from a Paris street, he is reluctant to take the case, but as it progresses, discovers he is not looking for a victim and kidnapper, but a ruthless serial killer.

Two words of warning. This is a tough, thoroughly ingenious read from the far shores of noir which frequently teeters on the edge of toppling over the thin line between realism and sadism, and some readers will find this hard to take. The other, which particularly jarred with me, is that translator Wynne seems to have been unable to decide whether he was working in English or American English some idioms detract from an otherwise very Gallic feel.

Expect the unexpected as the focus of the plot shifts dramatically more than once in a story entirely character and plot driven. The character clashes of the small police team are particularly well drawn. Some of the witness interviews from which much of the relevant investigative information emerges are quite gripping – more of the 'why' of the crime than the incidents themselves, although these are described in brutal detail. The complicated – and frankly depraved – dénouement is brilliantly handled.

§John Cleal is a former soldier and journalist with an interest in medieval history. He divides his time between France and England.

Reviewed by John Cleal, June 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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