It happens like clockwork every few months these days. Or anyway, ever since Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson showed that stunning crime writing could also come from those who do not write in English. Every few months, there emerges an author who writes in another language but also wins acclaim in the one spoken by Queen.
And this year, it seems to be the turn of France’s Pierre Lamaitre. He has been around for a while, winning many awards for his work in French, but with Alex, he has grabbed the attention of the English-speaking (and indeed,reading world).
And what helps him do so are a compelling plot with some brilliant characters. A girl is kidnapped off the street and then is subjected to what can only be called some very disturbing treatment – to start off with, she is dragged into a warehouse, stripped and put into a cage in which she can barely move. And it gets worse, but then that would be telling! Although the kidnapping is reported, no one knows who the girl is. The task of solving the case is given to Commandant Camille Verhoeven, a detective who stands a mere four feet eleven inches stall but has a penchant for figuring out how the criminal mind works. He himself, however, does not want to take the case because he lost his own wife in a kidnapping. Take it he does, however, and what follows is nothing short of brilliant.
For there is more -oh much more – to Alex than just finding the kidnapped girl. There is the story of the girl herself and why she was kidnapped. There are the qualms and eccentricities of Camille, who defends the law but hates reporting to people. And finally, there is his team – the well dressed immaculately mannered Louis, and the incredibly stingy Armand, who steals everything that is possible (from cigarettes to pencils) but is a tireless researcher.
So it is three people in search of a girl who is facing a dreadful predicament, but whom nobody seems to be missing. And no, it is not a simple case of kidnapping, for midway through the book, Lemaitre throws a staggering twist in the plot – we cannot tell you what, of course, but suffice to say, it turns quite a few things upside down and adds a whole new perspective to the case. Mind you, we can tell you this – it is not the only twist he throws in the book. By the time you reach the end, it is a fair chance, your mind will be stirred.
And disturbed too. For like Val McDermid in some of her titles, Lemaitre is not afraid of describing pain and discomfort. Some parts of the book are genuinely distressing, not least because they are told from the victim’s perspective. Lemaitre’s narration alternates between the perspectives of the victim, the investigators and the criminal – so you often know what the criminal is planning and in what direction the investigation is heading. Extremely gripping, and even spiced up with some humor, not least from an information source who seems to have an unhinged admiration for the English, something that Camille shares not!
All of which makes puts Alex right alongside Gone Girl as one of the most compelling thrillers we have read this year. Some might hark for more elegant, leisurely prose (yes, even in thrillers!) and some might wince at the gore and violence. We however, were simply too engrossed with Monsieur Camille and his team, and are so looking forward to other books in the series.
If you love thrillers, you miss a lot by missing Alex.
For the word is out. There is a new detective in thriller town. He is French, likes to sketch and is just four feet ten inches tall.
Welcome to our world, Commandant Camille Verhoeven. Stay as long as you wish!Alex Pierre Lemaitre MacLehose Press 368pp Rs 399