#BookReview - Alex by Pierre Lemaitre (translated by Frank Wynne)


Alex Prévost - kidnapped, beaten, suspended from the ceiling of an abandoned warehouse in a wooden cage - is in no position to bargain. Her abductor's only desire is to watch her die. 


Apart from a shaky police report, Commandant Camille Verhoven has nothing to go on: no suspect, no leads. If he is to find Alex, he will have to get inside her head. 


Resourceful, tough, beautiful, always two steps ahead - Alex will keep Verhoven guessing till the bitter end. And before long, saving her life will be the least of his worries.

This isn't going to be an easy review to write. Not because I don't know what to say about the book - there's plenty I could say, but I really don't want to give away any spoilers and in a book that's as packed with twists as this one that's not easy. So I won't be saying much about the plot, suffice to say it's one of the most gripping, shocking and gruesome books I've read this year. If you don't like visceral and brutal violence then this is not the book for you. It's not gratuitous though, as the book progresses the reasons behind such extreme acts becomes more understandable. The plotting, characterisation and intelligent, sometimes darkly humorous dialogue, combine sublimely in a novel that deserves every plaudit.
Pierre Lemaitre has taken the unusual step of telling the story in the third person present tense, giving the novel an almost detached feel but the sharply drawn observations of his characters, even the minor ones, with their quirks and mannerisms mean they come vividly to life. There are deft and insightful touches throughout the book, from the plastic surgery ravaged Mme Zanetti, "call me Jacqueline, no, honestly, I insist.", Delavigne, with his fondness for adding English words into his conversation, "Personally I find it 'amusing' as they say in English," and the magistrate with whom Camille clashes on numerous occasions, "From the way he's behaved since the start of the investigation, it's clear he believes that the proof of intelligence is having the last word."
 We first meet the eponymous Alex in a wig store, a young woman who enjoys playing with her appearance. She realises a man is watching her but Alex is a beautiful woman who is used to being noticed. Within a few pages she has been kidnapped, beaten and forced into a tiny cage, suspended from the ceiling. So far, so typical, another helpless woman brutally kidnapped. However, there is so much more to Alex than unfortunate victim, as her life seems to be ebbing away we learn she is pragmatic and resourceful. As the reasons behind her kidnapping become apparent we learn more about this flawed young woman, she's not always an easy character to like, or to relate to, yet she remains compelling throughout.
The investigating team is headed by Commandant Camille Verhoeven,who has become one of my favourite ever fictional police detectives, still grieving his wife who was kidnapped and murdered in Pierre Lemaitre's previous book, Irene, this is his first major case since her death. Camille's mother was a renowned artist and it's thanks to her that he has his most distinguishing features - he has an exceptional talent for drawing, and is only four foot eleven, stunted by foetal hypertrophy caused by his mother's addiction to smoking. Camille is brusque and impatient, he isn't easy to work with yet there is a touching affection apparent between him and his team; the charming and independently wealthy Louis, and Armand, a man who takes scrounging to new levels, respect his sometimes hard to fathom methods and have learned to respond accordingly to him according to his moods.
 I turned the pages breathlessly desperate to discover the truth, as the book progresses the story flips between horrific criminal acts and the investigation, and like the police I continuously felt a few steps behind, gasping in shock at twists I just didn't see coming. This is a novel that makes you think it's one thing before throwing all your preconceptions in the air - and then it does it again. By the end I was left dumbfounded by this superb thriller, praise too must go to Frank Wynne for his seamless translation. As I reached the end I was reminded of the quote from King Lear, "More sinn'd against than sinning" because ultimately this is a book about whether justice is sometimes more important than the truth,  The author leaves you to make up your own mind. I urge you to read it and come to your own conclusions, Alex is a book that I'll be thinking about for a long time.

Alex is published in the UK by Maclehose Press, an imprint of Quercus.

 About the Author

Pierre Lemaitre was born in Paris in 1951. He worked for many years as a teacher of literature before becoming a novelist. He was awarded the Crime Writers' Association International Dagger, alongside Fred Vargas, for Alex, and as sole winner for Camille. In 2013 his novel Au revoir là-haut(The Great Swindle, in English translation) won the Prix Goncourt, France's leading literary award.