Tuesday, February 2, 2016

IRENE :: Pierre Lemaitre

I don't remember why I picked up Pierre Lemaitre's Alex, but it wowed the socks off me and was one of the best, most twisty thrillers I read in 2014. I had never heard of Lemaitre, but when I researched him I wasn't surprised to learn Alex had won the prestigious CWA International Dagger Award in 2013.

I knew Alex was part of a police procedural trilogy centered around protagonist Commandant Camille Verhoeven and his brigade criminelle, so it was with great anticipation I awaited translation of the second installment, Irene, from French to English. Irene also won the CWA International Dagger Award (2014), and the final book in the trilogy, Camille, won in 2015. That's quite a pedigree.

Despite the very high bar set by Alex, I liked Irene very much. My one small gripe, as it were, is that Irene takes place before Alex chronologically and thus one of the major plot points is known going in. I'm not sure in what order the books were originally published in France, but I wouldn't discourage you from reading Irene first to avoid that spoiler, despite the fact that I thought Alex a bit more ingenious.

Where Alex was full of plot twists I never saw coming and thought were brilliant, Irene is different yet no less intense and intelligent. Commandant Verhoeven is a unique and fascinating protagonist. Born with fetal hypotrophy due to his mother's cigarette smoking, he stands only 4'11", not very imposing for the head of the brigade criminelle. What he lacks in stature, Verhoeven more than makes up for with intellect; a level of smarts that sometimes lands him in hot water.

Verhoeven is one of the most three-dimensional protagonists I've read in quite a while, and Lemaitre paints a superb picture of the man. He's plagued by his insecurities, stemming from his physical presence, his upbringing, and his gorgeous wife, Irene, who is pregnant with their first child. The tension and struggle in Verhoeven as he tries to be the husband he wants to be for Irene at the same time he's playing a deadly game of cat and mouse with a misogynistic sociopath can't help but be taken on by the reader it's so palpable.

The case Verhoeven and his team of fantastically-written cohorts, "the Verhoeven Brigade," face in Irene is a nasty one. In the words of one of the early-arriving officers, "It's like nothing I've ever seen in my life." A word of caution about Lemaitre's writing. It's graphic and it's not pretty. Definitely not for the squeamish.

The scene of the crime is a small derelict factory, and it doesn't take long for the Verhoeven Brigade to determine the location was carefully selected and the scene staged. The answering machine includes a greeting, but there is no phone line. An American movie is playing from the VCR. The furniture and art are carefully curated props. And amid the gore is a message written on the wall in blood, along with one clear and obviously intentionally-placed fingerprint.

It turns out the fingerprint was also left on purpose at the scene of a 2001 murder, the only thing the two vastly different crimes have in common. As the team works feverishly to find the connection and track down the madman, Verhoeven is struggling not only with the crime, but with a dogged reporter who is bound and determined to profile the ingenious Verhoeven, with or without his consent or participation.

The screws tighten on all fronts as the body count rises, the reporter keeps printing pieces that make the case a political nightmare and land Verhoeven in trouble with his superiors, and Irene gets closer and closer to delivering the little Verhoeven. The ultimate resolution and reveal are both surprising and shattering.

STREET SENSE: Lemaitre is a brilliant writer and plotter and he has created a wonderful, though violent, world for his readers with the Commandant Verhoeven trilogy. My sole reservation in recommending them is for those of you to whom the retelling of the crimes themselves might be disturbing. Although most of the actual violence occurs off-stage, there is plenty of description of the result of horrific crimes. But these books are so smart and the characters so well written, Verhoeven himself so unique and human, it would be a shame to miss out. The characters and plots are well worth the trip down My Bloody Valentine Lane. Also, the theme of the murders in Irene is probably not a spoiler and I'm dying to share it, but I won't. But it's a good 'un that readers will enjoy and Lemaitre handles it with a reverence I found quite telling.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  It's a long one, but one I loved:

Camille woke feeling amazing lucid. He and life had long been engaged in a battle of wills. Now, suddenly, he felt that the discovery of the bodies of these two mutilated women was about to turn a battle of wills into open warfare. The murdered women were no different from the woman he was caressing; like her, they had pale, rounded buttocks; firm, youthful flesh; in sleep their faces were probably like hers, with that curious expression like a swimmer underwater; the same deep, regular breathing; the soft snore; the moments of apnea that could panic a man who loved them as he watched them sleep; women with hair like Irene's, which curled about her heartbreakingly slender neck. Those murdered girls were no different from this woman he so loved. And yet, one day they had been -- what? -- invited, recruited, coerced, kidnapped, paid? However, it had come about, they had been mutilated by men whose only desire was to dismember young women with smooth, pale buttocks, who had been unmoved by the pleading looks of these women when they realized they were going to die; they may simply have excited them, and so these young women who had been born to live had somehow come to die in this apartment, in this city, in this century where he, Camille Verhoeven -- an utterly unremarkable policeman, the runt of the brigade criminelle, a pretentious, love-struck troll -- was stroking the beautiful belly of this woman who was constantly new, a miracle. Something was awry. In one last, weary flicker he saw himself devoting every ounce of his strength to two goals: first, to cherish this body he was stroking, from which, in time, would emerge the most astonishing gift; second, to hunt down the men who had mutilated those women, who had fucked them, raped them, killed them, dismembered them, splattering the walls with their blood.

COVER NERD SAYS: I like the covers of all the trilogy books. Irene is probably my second favorite, after Camille, below. Irene and Camille, in particular, conjure up the dread and angst of the series (maybe because the eyes are visible in those photos?). Alex has a different feel, a bit of the "one of these things is not like the others" kind of thing. Funnily enough, although it was Alex I read first, the other two covers would be the ones that would attract my eye on a book shop table. Overall, I think the covers serve the series well and get stronger as the series goes on.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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