Paris 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.
- 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