Pierre Lemaitre (www.pierrelemaitre.com)
Translated by Frank Wynne (www.terribleman.com)
MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)
Released: 13th March 2014
Commandant Camille Verhœven’s team are called to the scene of a grisly murder in a well-appointed apartment set in the middle of a largely deserted industrial estate. Two women have, quite literally, been torn apart and the only clue is the fake fingerprint left deliberately at the scene. This single clue links this case with an earlier case, and soon afterwards a third. There seems to be no rhyme nor reason for these murders, until Verhœven discovers that one of the murders bears a striking resemblance to the murder scene described in James Ellroy’s classic novel, The Black Dahlia. From there, it’s a matter of identifying the other books to which he is paying grisly homage in an attempt to understand what the killer is trying to do so they can have some chance of stopping him.
Pierre Lemaitre burst onto the scene in the English-speaking parts of the world in a big way last year with his novel, Alex. I’m one of the few people who missed the earlier novel, but the publication of Irène makes me glad that I did, since this, originally published in French as Travail soigné (Careful Work, if Google translate is to be believed), is the first of the Camille Verhœven novels, and I can only assume that the consequences of this first novel spill over into the second, meaning that people who have already read Alex may already have some inkling of what to expect. I could, of course, be very wrong; I’ll be reading Alex very soon to find out for myself.
From the beginning, Irène is a straightforward police procedural. For fans of the genre, it gives a slightly fresh perspective given the differences between the UK/US judicial systems and that of France (which bears some resemblance to that of Sweden, for fans of Scandi-crime). We meet the team as they begin the investigation into the first brutal pair of murders. Verhœven is an unconventional man, a man who barely reaches four foot eleven inches, but who commands the respect of the men under his command and, quite quickly, most people who come under his scrutiny. He is happily married, and his wife is expecting a child, and this adds a human touch to the plodding detective that we see in the workplace, and introduces a familiar thread that will ring true for many fathers and expectant fathers: the thought that we’re spending too much time in work, and not enough time with our family, missing vital moments that we will never be able to regain.
In some ways Irène is a love letter to the crime fiction genre, and Lemaitre takes the somewhat unexpected approach of making his killer, who recreates crime scenes from fiction, use scenes from some of the best known novels in the genre: the aforementioned The Black Dahlia, Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (which will be recognisable to anyone who has read that novel as soon as they find themselves in the crime scene), William McIlvaney’s Laidlaw and Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s first Martin Beck novel, Roseanna. These scenes in some ways act as Easter eggs for people who have already read these novels, and gives us food for thought as we try to outthink the killer, or reach a conclusion before Verhœven and his team does. As you might expect from the list of inspirations, Irène is not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach.
From the first page, there is an impending sense of doom which may not have existed in the novel’s original form. Despite that, Lemaitre still manages to take all of the reader’s expectations and grind them into dust in a single masterful stroke. Turning the conventional crime novel on its head, the author pulls the rug from under our feet and leaves us uncertain not only whom to trust, but whether anything we’ve read has actually happened or, crucially, whether any of it actually matters. Which is about all I can say without introducing spoilers. Suffice it to say that, bad as that statement sounds, it’s a moment of sheer genius that will leave the reader, jaw slack in admiration, realising that as well as penning a love letter to the genre, Lemaitre has set out to prove that he can go one better than anything that has gone before, and succeeds with verve.
The dynamics of the police team,the individual personalities that make it up, are what drive this story forward. Camille Verhœven himself is a protagonist that will stick with the reader and make us want to read the other books in the series (can MacLehose Press have them translated quickly enough to keep us satisfied?). This is a novel where very little actually happens – the murders have already been committed and, with the exception of two of them, we don’t even get to visit the crime scenes. It’s the very definition of a police procedural, a very cerebral mystery rather than one with lots of action. There are parallels with the television show Whitechapel, which has a similar atmosphere about it, not to mention a very similar setting (large room, plenty of desks and whiteboards and whatnot).
While Alex received critical acclaim on its release last year, Irène, Pierre Lemaitre’s first novel, will be the book that people will remember in years to come. Intelligent and engrossing, it’s a worthwhile read primarily for that sense of amazement that will have you flicking back through pages looking for the mirrors or trapdoors, but also because of the mystery itself. A crime novel for genre fans penned by a man who is obviously a fan himself, Irène is beautifully translated by the always-reliable Frank Wynne and stunningly presented in the usual high-standard MacLehose package. If you were one of the people who enjoyed Alex, you’re going to love Irène, despite what you think you already know. If you’re lucky enough to still be a Lemaitre virgin, do yourself a favour and read a book that is sure to be high on many peoples’ (my own included) "best of the year" lists come December.