What is the reader to make of a novel in which violence against women reaches a level of ugliness that amounts to pornography? That’s certainly the case with “Irene,” a bestseller and prizewinner in France that concerns the search for a killer who abducts, tortures, mutilates and dismembers a series of women. Each crime is described in graphic, harrowing detail. These scenes leave readers with a choice. Some, not unreasonably, will throw the book aside in disgust. Others, willing to accept the horrors as necessary if the author is to tell his chosen tale, will persevere.

Pierre Lemaitre was a professor of literature before turning to crime fiction, and the reader learns early in the novel that he’s playing a literary game with us. Each of the murders is found to be a copy, down to the smallest details, of murders portrayed in previous novels by well-known writers in America, France, Scotland and Sweden. To a degree, this gives the author a fig leaf to hide behind; he can wink and say, “Don’t blame me — those other fellows did it first.”

Lemaitre calls his novel “an homage to crime fiction.” Of course, by invoking classics of the past, he invites comparisons with them. That’s a gamble — but one that largely pays off. “Irene” is superior crime fiction, worthy of the international attention it has received despite its borrowed gore.

The improbable hero, Paris chief of detectives Camille Verhoeven, is intelligent, resolute and 4 feet 11 inches tall. He attributes his size to fetal hypotrophy, caused by his pregnant mother’s chain smoking. Or, as he bitterly recalls her, “the mother whose toxic habit had fashioned him into a kind of pale, slightly deformed copy of Toulouse-Lautrec.” His mother, a painter, also gave him a solid grounding in art; when he first sees two horribly mutilated women at the initial murder scene, he thinks of “Goya’s painting Saturn Devouring His Son, and for an instant he could see the terrifying face, the bulging eyes, the crimson mouth, the utter madness.”

We come to know the diminutive Verhoeven well, as we do his wife, Irene, who is expecting their first child. Their nicely rendered love injects beauty into an often unpleasant tale. Lemaitre also takes pains to develop the detectives who assist Verhoeven, as well as a reporter who bedevils him with leaked stories, and a bookstore owner and a professor of literature who help him match each new crime with a novel. These are odd, difficult men, and the reader may wonder whether one of them is the elusive killer. His identity remains a mystery until the final pages, although Verhoeven receives taunting letters in which the murderer explains that re-creating the great fictional murders is his own work of art: “My mission is to ensure that the fictional worlds of great writers are scrupulously brought to life just so. It is that scrupulousness that crowns my work with greatness.”

The French media by then are calling the killer the Novelist. To the reader, he is more a psychopath with dreams of glory — and also one of the most frightening villains in recent crime fiction.

The killer’s mania for detail extends to leaving a copy of a Traveling Wilburys CD at one murder scene, just as a copy was found at the murder scene in a notable — some would say notorious — American novel. As the crimes proceed, the author (and his translator) sometimes brighten the gloom with bright, irreverent writing. A young reporter “looked well on his way to liver failure.” A desolate neighborhood “was about as busy as a whorehouse in heaven.” A police official with three ex-wives spends his time “watching his salary slip through the cracks in his life.” A hushed bookstore offers “a foretaste of eternity.” Verhoeven says of one detective, “If they gave out medals for being tightfisted, Armand would pawn his.”

Once I accepted the novel’s portrayals of violence, I found little to fault in “Irene.” It’s too long, but that’s the price we pay for those quirky characterizations. More important, as the story progresses, the suspense becomes electric. The madman must be caught, yet he outsmarts the police at every turn. The novel’s closing chapters are as suspenseful and ultimatelyas shocking as the climax of any thriller I can recall; the final pages will leave readers numb. In “Irene,” violence ups the ante, and tough-minded writing carries the day.

Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.


By Pierre Lemaitre

Translated from the French by Frank Wynne

MacLehose. 452 pp. $26.99