Alex by Pierre Lemaitre: Review

AlexParis at night. A girl walks home alone down a darkened street. She’s grabbed, thrown into the back of a van and driven off.  Next time we see her the girl is being forced naked into a wooden cage and suspended from the roof of a disused rat -infested warehouse. Her assailant wants to watch her die.  The rats are not content to watch – they want a piece of the action.

The opening chapters of Alex by the French novelist Pierre Lemaitre are graphically gruesome; definitely not for the squeamish. But just when you think you can’t bear to read any more, Lemaitre masterfully brings us some relief in the form of the police hunt for the missing girl. We’re in the safe world of police procedure here with the tried and tested device of a senior investigator who has his own back story and the usual run in with his superior officers.

Alex might contain many of the hallmarks of  the crime novel genre, but it’s certainly not run of the mill stuff. It has tremendous pace and tension and enough unexpected twists to keep most readers hooked right through to the end. Yes it has a high quota of horrible ways in which people meet their death but this never feels gratuitous or subservient to the plot and character.  Yes it has more than a fair number of contrivances which require readers to suspend their disbelief but the novel is so fast paced and gripping that it’s easy to just ignore the tricks and devices.

Beyond the nasty bits and the police man hunt, this is a novel that has a strong human dimension. Both Alex the kidnapped girl, and the man desperate to find her, Commandant Camille are unhappy people though unhappy for different reasons. Alex (not her real name it turns out) has never recovered from her traumatic childhood. Camille has never recovered from his wife’s kidnapping and murder a few years earlier. He is riven with guilt that he couldn’t find her in time. He’s also trying to reconcile himself with his mother’s recent death.

At it’s heart, Alex is a novel of revenge. But it deals with that topic as more than a simple plot device. It uses it as a means to raise a moral question – the question of whether certain actions can ever be fully justified. It’s purpose is not to provide answers, but merely to get readers to evaluate, to consider for themselves.  Quite an achievement to combine both a moral issue and a page turning book. Lemaitre seems to be an author to watch.

Endnotes

  • Pierre Lemaitre was born in Paris in 1956. He worked for many years as a teacher of literature before becoming a novelist
  • Alex is the first of his novels to be translated into English.
  • It won the Crime Writers Association International Dagger prize for best crime novel  in translation in 2013

10 thoughts on “Alex by Pierre Lemaitre: Review

  1. My TV server was off when I got up this morning so I reached page 101 of the above book while having my breakfast. Not a good move ! Then ding-a-lin-a-ling, mail rolling in and what do I find but you reviewing Alex, I’ll have to reserve judgement until I’ve finished it. But could you have written those descriptions of the torture and degradation of a woman ? What sort of a mind can write like that in such detail ? The story of Camille and Co in the remainder of the book will have to be good to balance out these scenes of torture.

    • I dont have that kind of imagination fortunately. I’ve seen a number of comments on Library Thing about the level of violence being distasteful and making the book unreadable. I can see why they might have stopped early on but fortunately the book doesn’t continue in same level of explicitness throughout

      • I’ve now finished the book. I needed to finish it as those early images were so playing on my mind and I hoped a resolution of the story would remove them. I find the written word more distressing than an enacting of the scene. I can see why the writer wanted to keep the two parts running in parallel but I would have preferred it with hints of the horror instead of full-blown descriptions. But that’s just me.. I thought of you on page 205 – He’s wearing a wool cardigan with a zip that looks hand knitted. But I was very impressed with – He never imagined he would be the last living soul in his own life. He is an author worth discussing so I hope they translate something of his which is less yukky . Today I’m going back to Donna Leon. Thanks for bring up the topic.

      • Me too. there is no way I would want to watch a film with scenes like those in this book. He has a new book coming out soon I think but have no idea what it’s about

  2. This has been sitting on my shelves unread for far too long now because I’ve been so squeamish about those opening pages. I have a day to myself this weekend. Perhaps I should use it to take a good run at it and get past them given how well received the novel as a whole has been.

  3. Is it as graphic as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo? If it is, I think I probably could handle it…and if as you say, it gets beyond that, I’m sure I’d be fine with it. Sounds like a possibility, that’s for sure.

  4. Just catching up on your posts. I too have high tolerance for torture in books — but I can’t bear much in movies. It’s just too real with sound. Reading gives me the distance I need. I only remember quitting one book because I couldn’t bear the violence– Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird. It was too real. Also, most of the violenceI read is in mysteries/crime novels. I don’t tend to read horror.

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