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by Pierre Lemaitre and Frank Wynne, trans.
Quercus/MacLehose, September 2013
387 pages
ISBN: 1623650003

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Let me say at the outset that I resisted taking this book on board for review. The publicity accompanying it suggested that it contained any number of features that I have sworn off reading about, most particularly the cliche of the abducted woman hideously confined in impossible conditions who seems very likely to perish. Stir in a troop of rats bent on her destruction and we have the recipe for the book I (who never quite recovered from Room 101 in 1984) was least likely to read this season. But, as they say, never say never, and the fact that the citation accompanying the CWA International Dagger that it won this year made it clear that this was something other than your usual S & M soft-porn thriller encouraged me to persevere, rats be damned. And I am very glad I did.

ALEX is the first appearance in English of the Commandant Camille Verhoeven Trilogy, though it is not the first in the set, but the second. Number one (Travail soigné, 2006) and number three (Sacrifices, 2012) have yet to be published in English translation. Verhoeven is attached to the brigade criminelle in Paris with a rank roughly equivalent to a detective chief inspector, but of late has only taken on minor crimes. Four years ago, his pregnant wife Irčne had collapsed in the street, been rushed to hospital, and then kidnapped. She did not survive. Camille was all but destroyed by her death - in fact he suffered a mental breakdown that required hospitalization. Now shakily back on the force, he doubts that he is up to the task of dealing with another kidnapped woman but determined to save this one's life if he can.

Camille is an unusual policeman. His mother, now dead, was a prominent artist and heavy smoker. She spent her life enveloped in a haze of Gauloises. From her, Camille received a double inheritance. He is a talented sketch artist and he is improbably short for a policeman (4'11", to be precise). He attributes his lack of stature to the tobacco smoke his mother inhaled when he was in utero. His boss, Le Guen, is perhaps a foot taller and weighs in excess of 260 pounds. Together they make a startling pair.

It would be wrong to attempt to indicate the twisty path this book takes toward its remarkable conclusion. At core, it is a sound police procedural, but it is considerably more ambitious than that. Let's just say that it doesn't go where you think it will or even where you think it might. The translation by Frank Wynne is near-faultless, colloquial, flowing, and US flavoured.

ALEX shared its International Dagger with Fred Vargas' THE GHOST RIDERS OF ORDEBEC. Some might wonder whether it was absolutely necessary to divide the award since Vargas had already taken home three of them but it does make some sense. What both books share is a kind of extraordinary and quirky individuality, not to speak of a characteristically Gallic wit, that links them, different from each other though they are.

So I do urge you not to be put off by the jacket descriptions or any rodent-averse anxieties you may be harbouring. ALEX is worth any effort it might take to get you past the opening pages. Besides, how can you resist an author who acknowledges his debt to, among others, Roland Barthes, Cynthia Fleury, Fyodor Dostoevsky, John Harvey, and Marcel Proust?

§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, September 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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