Written by Pierre Lemaitre, translated by Frank Wynne — The first Pierre Lemaitre book to be translated into English, Alex, was one of my top reads of 2013 and a deserving joint winner of the CWA International Dagger. It shared the award with the Ghost Riders of Ordebec – French crime fiction had a good year last year. Alex turned the whole kidnapping and torture scenario around in a dark and twisted way, so perhaps it should not be surprising that Irène turns the sometimes rather tired and overdone serial killer paradigm on its head as well.
Commandant Verhoeven is a thorough and intuitive cop, happy with his life, despite some needling about his diminutive size by his colleagues. Together with his beautiful wife Irène, he is looking forward to the birth of their first child. He is called to a crime scene in an expensively-furnished converted warehouse on an isolated brownfield site in Paris. Two young prostitutes have been killed with ferocious brutality. It soon emerges that this crime may be related to an earlier murder. In each case, the killer seems to have taken great pains to stage the crime scene and it soon emerges that he is replicating with frightening accuracy murders from well-known crime novels including The Black Dahlia, Laidlaw and American Psycho.
Despite his unusual physical traits and the flamboyance of his (now deceased) painter mother, Verhoeven is the kind of policeman who is quite happy to recede into the background for the good of the investigation. He’s a pursuer rather than a hero. Yet he reluctantly finds himself the subject of much media attention, as well as the target of personal messages from the killer. As the newspapers and the public clamour for a speedy resolution to what they now call ‘The Novelist Murderer’, Verhoeven finds himself trying to second guess the killer’s next step.
So far, so déjà vu you might think, but the author adds a rich layer of literary allusions and intertextuality which will delight any crime fiction fan. Some of the graphic descriptions – such as when the bodies are discovered – may shock you, but they are in fact replicating descriptions found in the novels that have apparently inspired the killer. Therefore the descriptions are essential to the plot, rather than gratuitous. As the story progresses, you almost but not quite guess the resolution, as Lemaitre is not afraid to subvert your expectations, although not quite as intensely and unexpectedly as in Alex.
This is the first volume in the Camille Verhoeven trilogy, although the second to be translated into English. So readers familiar with Alex may already be aware of the final outcome of this book. That’s is a bit of a shame, but also makes the scenes between Camille and his wife all the more poignant. Although I was a little less excited by the serial killer trope, I still found myself racing through the book to its final conclusion. It is hard to believe that this was Lemaitre’s debut novel. It’s a highly polished, self-assured piece of work, very aptly rendered into colloquial English by Frank Wynne. The final novel of the three will also be translated shortly and should provide a thrilling conclusion to the story.
To win a copy of Irène enter our competition before 13 March 2014. You can read our interview with Pierre Lemaitre here.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars