Hang on to your hats folks, Pierre Lemaitre's Alex (translated from the French by Frank Wynne) is one rollercoaster of a ride. I was going to say--is going to be a bumpy ride and maybe that's true, too, actually. Whatever preconceptions you might have about crime fiction, or more importantly about just what it is to be a victim or a perpetrator, please leave them at the door. This is a story that is not going to be what you expect it to be, and you have to admire it for that. The blurbs read: "exhilarating", "literary", "Hitchcockian". They're pretty much spot on. Let me add quirky (the detective), thrilling (the story), not for the faint of heart (the crime).
If dark, edgy, psychological crime's your thing, you can't pick a better book at the moment. I can see why it's been shortlisted for the CWA International Dagger, and why it's the first book by Lemaitre that has been translated into English. It's the second book featuring the irascible Police Commandant Camille Verhoeven, who makes up in personality what he lacks in stature. This is a police procedural with a twist. It's much less a whodunit (since you know early on the 'who' part of the equation) than a whydunit. But there is still a sense of urgency to catch the perpetrator.
Alex is a stunning woman. She likes to transform herself, her image, her looks. Shy at heart, it's taken her a while to get the courage to change her appearance and then step out into public, but once there she hits her stride. As a girl she was painfully insecure and filled with self-doubt. She's never quite outgrown the stutter that marked her speech when young as it comes out still in moments of nervousness. Maybe that's part of the attraction for reimagining her life and her appearance. Alex likes to move from place to place, taking bits of her past with her while discarding others.
One fateful evening she chooses to walk rather than take the bus home, and on a nearly empty street she's grabbed from behind, viciously struck and thrown into a waiting van. As it roars away she thinks with horror how she does not want to die. The man is remorseless and it's obvious he wants no more than to kill her, but it's worse even than that. He wants to see her suffer in the process.
There's only one witness to the crime and little evidence of what occurred. The case lands in the lap of Commandant Camille Verhoeven who is loathe to take it on. He agrees only to begin work until it can be passed off to another detective. Verhoeven has been on leave after the death of his pregnant wife, who was also kidnapped and never again seen alive. Too many memories are being dredged up and too many self recriminations that he was not able to save her. Now he's faced with another young woman who has literally disappeared without a trace. How do you save someone whose name you don't know, who no one seems to have seen, and whose abductor has covered his tracks too well?
Camille Verhoeven has a short fuse, particularly with his superiors. Perhaps it's in part due to the death of his wife, who always brought out the best in him. Or maybe it's due to circumstances that have shaped his personality. Always something of an oddball, he's an angry man, unhappy with himself, he's a study in contrasts. He stands only four feet eleven inches, but has a towering presence. He's often taciturn yet also stoic, thuggish but a tactician, too. He's a complex and interesting character and driven to find this nameless woman.
Meanwhile Alex is being kept in the most dire and brutal conditions. Sure that no one will come save her she must try and save herself, but is pushed to the edge psychologically. There are some disturbing moments in this story, but if you press on and keep reading, the twists and sharp turns of the story raise it out of the realm of cheap thrills into something more questioning. There are parts of this story that are quite unexpected, and it's those unexpecteds that impressed me most.
I hope Commandant Verhoeven makes another appearance in English, though how you follow a story like this one is beyond me.
My copy came compliments of Random House. Mark this one down on your calendars. It's scheduled to be published in September!