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alexWritten by Pierre Lemaitre — This may be his first novel translated into English, but Pierre Lemaitre is far from a newcomer to the crime fiction genre. It’s actually the second book in his Verhoeven series following Travail soigné, which won the Cognac Festival’s prize for best new novel in 2006. He’s also written three further books which have all been very well received in France.

Alex Prévost appears to be a typical young Parisian woman: single, resourceful, independent. She loves fashion and food, and struggles to avoid gaining weight. She is fast approaching 30 but she is still so beautiful that men turn after her in the streets. One day, a man follows her, and violently bundles her into a white van. All the police have is a confused eyewitness account.  They have no means of identifying the girl, no suspects, no ransom demands or other leads to follow up. As time ticks by, the chances of finding her alive are reduced.

Commandant Camille Verhoeven has no desire to become involved in another kidnapping case. His own wife was taken and murdered a few years back leading to a major breakdown and months of sick leave. As he digs deeper into Alex’s disappearance, however, he becomes doggedly determined that his wife’s fate will not be repeated.

The case is anything but straightforward. The information about Alex is scant and contradictory. No-one seems to care enough to report the girl missing. Descriptions of her are unclear, even confusing. Verhoeven uses intuitive methods that are a little reminiscent of the Zen procedure used by Commissaire Adamsberg, the character written by Fred Vargas. So, he suspects there is something unusual about the girl. The hunt for kidnapper and victim becomes more frenzied as links are made to other suspicious deaths.

Scenes of the police investigation alternate with sequences described from Alex’s point of view, fighting with all her strength and wit against her aggressor, and this adds to the tension. The author was formerly a lecturer on French and American literature, and you can detect some of his influences through his style, such as Brett Easton Ellis, James Ellroy or William McIlvaney. He errs to the darker, more complicated side of life and literature, for gritty background and brutal scenes.

We are in the confident hands of a master storyteller here, who knows how to wind up our nerves to the maximum.  Although some of the captivity scenes may feel too violent for more sensitive readers, they seem justified in this context and less voyeuristic than, for instance, certain scenes in the Millennium Trilogy by Steig Larsson. The sense of urgency is maintained throughout by the use of the present tense. Normally I would find that gimmicky, but it works beautifully in this novel and is not overdone at all. In fact, it’s barely noticeable. What is particularly striking is the way the author gradually divulges key information, then shifts the perspective just when we think we have grasped things, then shifts again. The ending is very French, reminiscent of the nouvelle vague films of the 1960s.

The book has been popularly received in France and won the Readers’ Prize for Crime Fiction. Lemaitre himself says he wants to write the kind of books that Hitchcock would have wanted to film. Based on the way he manipulates our emotions and beliefs in Alex, yet has us enjoying every minute of it, I would say he has succeeded here. An exciting new voice, and I hope to see more translations of his novels.

Maclehose Press

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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