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Book of the week : Alex - Pierre Lemaitre

Alex may be his first novel translated into English, but Pierre Lemaitre is far from a newcomer to the crime fiction genre. It’s actually the second book in his Verhoeven series following Travail soigné, which won the Cognac Festival’s prize for best new novel in 2006. He’s also written three further books which have all been very well received in France

Alex Prévost appears to be a typical young Parisian woman: single, resourceful, independent. She loves fashion and food, and struggles to avoid gaining weight. She is fast approaching 30 but she is still so beautiful that men turn after her in the streets. One day, a man follows her, and  bundles her violently into a white van. All the police have is a confused eyewitness account.  They have no means of identifying the girl, no suspects, no ransom demands or other leads to follow up. As time ticks by, the chances of finding her alive are reduced

The police, led by tiny (four foot eleven) and irascible detective Camille Verhoeven investigate. Verhoeven has no desire to become involved in another kidnapping case. His own wife was taken and murdered a few years back leading to a major breakdown and months of sick leave. As he digs deeper into Alex’s disappearance, however, he becomes doggedly determined that his wife’s fate will not be repeated

The case is anything but straightforward. The information about Alex is scant and contradictory. No-one seems to care enough to report the girl missing. Descriptions of her are unclear, even confusing. Verhoeven uses intuitive methods and  he suspects there is something unusual about the girl. The hunt for kidnapper and victim becomes more frenzied as links are made to other suspicious deaths

Scenes of the police investigation alternate with sequences described from Alex’s point of view, and as the grim details of her incarceration unfold, (which, quite frankly, will probably haunt your dreams), she finds herself having to draw on every ounce of her own resourcefulness to survive and seek her escape. With the police seemingly at a loss to identify her and,  more importantly, to track her and her kidnapper down, what is it about this woman that eludes their detection and has forced a man to take such serious measures as to patiently stalk her, and then seek to watch her die in such a barbarous way? Well, that would be telling, but suffice to say when the true nature of Alex’s character and her ruthless sense of retribution are slowly revealed, you’ll be completely caught up in, and engaged with, the expose of this remarkably determined and dangerous young woman- a woman who  makes Lisbeth Salander look like Mary Poppins. But, and here’s the clever bit, you will be wrongfooted at every turn in your emotional responses to her and this is where the genius of this dark tale lies

Outside of the sterling characterisation of the hypnotic Alex herself, Lemaitre proves he is no slouch at creating other compelling characters, as an integral part of the whole. Police Commandant Verhoeven is a wonderful creation. Struggling with his own mental torment, Verhoeven, takes a firm hold on the case with the investigatory tenacity of a small terrier, challenging those who seek to interrupt his path of detection with a steely determination and a nice line in putdowns. As small as he is physically, his character looms large within the piece and his interplay with his colleagues Louis, intelligent and rich who drapes himself in designer clothing, and Armand, a scruffy individual who has taken cadging to a whole other level, is so plausible and engaging, that as the action pivots between Alex herself and the police investigation, there is a perfect mix of drama, poignancy and humour ingrained in Verhoeven and his close colleagues throughout. There are also by turns, some really hapless and repellent characters who all play a strong part in the novel, both in conjunction with Alex’s actions, and in those who seek to undermine Verhoeven’s grip on the case, despite the sense of urgency and professionalism he brings to the investigation. Quite simply, Lemaitre provides a masterclass in characterisation throughout, and you’ll be appalled and delighted by his protagonists at every turn

Every so often a crime thriller comes along that leaves you breathless and takes you on a disturbing journey into the darkest recesses of human experience. Alex is one such book and you’re guaranteed a tale of the unexpected from start to finish. An absolute gem of a crime novel that is wonderfully dark, scary,  mad, bad and dangerous to know, but just far too good to miss……

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April 15, 2013

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