Pierre Lemaitre is fast becoming one of the most respected and versatile writers in France. After enjoying huge popular success with his award-winning crime fiction, in 2013 he went on to win the Prix Goncourt, the highest literary prize in France, for his moving novel about the aftermath of World War I. His first novel to be translated into English, Alex, was joint winner of the CWA International Dagger in 2013, but it is actually the second novel in a trilogy featuring diminutive Inspector Camille Verhoeven. The first book in the trilogy, Irène, will be released for Kindle on 27 February. It’s the chilling story of a serial killer who stages his murders to echo scenes from some of the best-loved works of the crime fiction genre. I took this opportunity to talk to Lemaitre about his writing.
Congratulations on all the prizes you won in 2013, especially the Goncourt for a non-crime novel. Does that mean you’re abandoning crime fiction?
Thank you. No, I’m not leaving the world of crime fiction, but I never promised that I wouldn’t write anything else…
You worked for several years as a literature instructor, teaching librarians. Did that influence you in the literary references you use in Irène?
In order to teach these librarians, I had to study closely the structure of novels, narrative techniques, points of view and so on. This undoubtedly helped me a great deal when I was writing my first novel and led me to this ‘game of intertextuality’, which I feel is what literature is all about today.
Your crime novels, including Irène, often contain quite graphic scenes. Do you believe that readers need to see death in all its gore to remember their own mortality?
Just like children need frightening stories to confront and tame their own fears, perhaps readers of thrillers and crime fiction need to read about other people’s deaths to come to terms with their own mortality. But that’s not the reason why I write about such things.
I’m often reproached for showing too much violence in my books and this is something which I always find puzzling and somewhat amusing. Obviously a reader of crime fiction expects a violent death or two, otherwise they would probably buy a romance or a book from another genre. So just how much horror is an acceptable dose? A genteel little bit, but not too much? It does sound a rather hypocritical to establish hard and fast rules about that. Besides, I find there are violent acts against nature and the world economy which far outweigh any scenes contained in my books.
What is particularly interesting in the case of Irène is that this accusation of graphic scenes doesn’t make sense, because all the scenes were inspired by other novels…
Did you always intend to write a trilogy featuring Camille Verhoeven?
No, it was never planned as such. It’s only when I embarked upon the second book, Alex, that Camille popped up again as a possibly useful character. Besides, he’s not really a hero. In many crime series, from Rebus to Philip Marlowe, Wallander to Harry Bosch and Adamsberg, the investigator is the main protagonist and hero of the story. I wanted to write a trilogy in which the investigator recedes into the background – closer to Simenon in spirit. For that I needed a person who is the opposite of heroic.
Do you think there are any major differences between crime fiction written in France and elsewhere?
Not really. There are differences in emphasis, fashions or even subject matter, but nothing essential.
The best-selling thrillers in France nowadays are the fast-paced American-style ones like the work of Jean-Christophe Grange or Franck Thilliex. The writers who are most appreciated abroad are the more lyrical, almost eccentric ones like Fred Vargas. You seem to be somewhere between these two extremes. How would you describe your style?
It’s up to the readers and the critics to make these comparisons. All I can say is that I work very much in the tradition of suspension of disbelief as described by Coleridge. I deliberately have a somewhat ambiguous relationship with reality in all of my work. But at the same time I don’t write in a style which is difficult to read. I think any of my readers can get a pretty clear picture of how I view literature in general and my job as a writer, and entertainer.
What advice would you give to your English readers, who are going to read the translation of your works out of order?
Life is like that: things don’t always come at you in a nicely ordered fashion. I have complete faith in my English readers that they will be able to piece together the entire trilogy, whether they read it in order or not. Perhaps the braver ones amongst them will attempt to reread the trilogy in the right order once all of the volumes are available. They will then see that it does tell the story of a man whose life is shaped by three women. Very much like in real life.
Watch out for our upcoming review of Irène, and our competition to win an excellent bundle from its publisher Quercus. You can get Alex for just £1.54 on Kindle at the moment, using the link below.