One of the more noteworthy results of the success of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” etc.) has been the steady proliferation of European crime novels in English translations. While fellow Scandinavians such as Jo Nesbo, Karin Fossum and Arnaldur Indridason have been particularly successful here, other, non-Nordic countries continue to send their exports our way. The latest example is France’s Pierre Lemaitre, who makes an auspicious English-language debut with “Alex,” co-winner, along with Fred Vargas’s “The Ghost Riders of Ordebec,” of the Crime Writers Association’s International Dagger Award.
“Alex” is the second volume (but the first to be published here) in a projected trilogy featuring Commandant Camille Verhoeven of the “brigade criminelle” of Paris. A brilliant investigator and natural outsider, Verhoeven is 4 feet 11 inches tall. His height is the result of fetal hypertrophy, caused by the fact that his mother, renowned artist Maud Verhoeven, smoked incessantly while pregnant with him. Verhoeven carries another burden, one that very nearly destroyed him. Some years earlier, his wife, Irene, herself eight months pregnant, was kidnapped and murdered. The subsequent trauma led to a series of extended stays in psychiatric clinics and convalescent homes. Eventually, he returned to work, taking on only minor cases, such as crimes of passion where “the deaths are behind you, not in front.” He rigorously avoids all kidnapping cases, finding himself unable to cope with the inevitable memories.
Unfortunately, a combination of circumstances forces him to investigate a particularly brutal abduction. Lemaitre describes that abduction, to chilling effect, in the opening chapter. Walking home after a solitary dinner, Alex, a beautiful young woman who has gone by many names, is assaulted and savagely beaten by an unknown man in a nondescript van. Her attacker then transports her, bound and gagged, to a deserted warehouse, where things rapidly get worse. Alex is beaten again, forced to undress, and thrown into a tiny cage patterned after a medieval torture device. Suspended in midair, she is left to face a protracted death from thirst, starvation, and exposure, not to mention an encroaching horde of highly aggressive rats. Throughout the ordeal, her assailant tells her one thing only: “I want to watch you die.”
The long opening section moves back and forth between Alex’s plight, which grows increasingly dire as the days pass, and a police investigation hampered by the complete absence of useful evidence. The story, by this point, has assumed the shape of a classic race-against-the-clock drama in which the victim’s life hangs in the balance and time is running out. It’s a familiar enough scenario, and one that can be extremely effective. Lemaitre, as it turns out, has another, very different scenario in mind.
At a critical moment in the narrative, the central situation changes dramatically, as Alex’s captivity comes to an unexpected end. This turn of events triggers a change in the nature of the police investigation. The search for Alex continues but is transformed from one sort of manhunt into another. As the new manhunt proceeds, Verhoeven and his colleagues learn a number of astonishing facts about Alex and find themselves unearthing information about an ongoing series of extremely grisly murders. We are suddenly immersed in another classic trope of modern crime fiction: the hunt for a serial killer. Once again, however, Lemaitre confounds our preconceived expectations.
The hunt for Alex ends on a note that might, in a more predictable narrative, be considered anticlimactic. In this novel, that “ending” serves as a window into the third and final section, in the course of which all that has gone before takes on a new and even darker significance. The final 80 pages build to a series of revelations that are both sad and shocking. What emerges at last is a sordid, often heartbreaking account of madness, family dysfunction and sexual sadism. With quiet virtuosity, Lemaitre moves the narrative through its various levels toward a concluding act of retribution that is both ingeniously conceived and immensely satisfying. Tricky, disturbing and ultimately affecting, “Alex” is a welcome addition to the rising tide of European crime fiction that has followed in the wake of Stieg Larsson’s death. Larsson’s many readers should take this book to their hearts and should find themselves waiting, with some degree of impatience, for the next Verhoeven novel to appear.
Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub.”
By Pierre Lemaitre
Translated from the French by Frank Wynne
MacLehose. 368 pp. $24.95