Tuesday, December 09, 2014

IRÈNE, Pierre Lemaitre: Extraordinary French Crime Writing

[Note to readers of "traditional" or "amateur sleuth" or "cozy" mysteries: Stay with us this week. We have a lot to write about! But this one's probably not your cuppa tea.]

Consider yourself fortunate if you have NOT yet read Pierre Lemaitre's Alex, which is the second in the Vanderhoeven trilogy -- somehow the lines of translation from French to the English-reading market got royally twisted, and Alex, which is the second in this investigative threesome, came out earlier.

Today, however, is the release date for
--> IRÈNE -- the first in the series -- and if you like rich literary mystery writing, or dark European work, or are building a collection of French mysteries, this one is definitely for you.

Commandant Camille Vanderhoeven is a master interviewer of criminals and victims alike. It's a side effect of his artistic imagination and skills, handed down from his mother, a superb painter whose early death has left her studio silenced. As IRÈNE opens, Camille is making a deft sketch of the battered woman in his office who chooses not to reveal her batterer's whereabouts. Laying the lines onto the paper is background for his quick questions of the young woman -- and for his stagecraft, as he has already primed the interview with a planned interruption from a colleague, with a faked report that, in turn, will nudge the young woman into divulging the information that Camille needs.

This scene, in turn, is the author's sketch of the man whose shoes we inhabit for more than 400 pages, as Commandant Vanderhoeven heads up the search for a serial killer. The book's title is the name of Camille's pregnant wife -- the couple is happily expecting their first child. But Camille won't spend much time with his wife, as he chases the murderer across France and backtracks some earlier killings elsewhere. Soon two defining aspects of the series of killings emerge: (1) The murderer is replicating ghastly scenes from classic crime fiction (it takes a while for Camille to realize this and confirm it, but readers will notice the detail on the book cover), and (2) this serial killer is responding to Camille's connection to him, by getting personal. Way too personal.

I like this early description of the first crime scene the French Commandant confronts:
There is no strategy for dealing with atrocity. And yet this was why he was here, staring at the nameless horror.

Before it had clotted, someone had used the victims' blood to daub on the wall in huge letters: I AM BACK. ... Camille stepped over the mangled body of a woman and went to the wall. At the end of the sentence, a finger had been pressed against the wall with great care. Every ridge and whorl was distinct; it looked just like the old-style ID cards when a duty officer would press your finger against the yellowing cardboard, rolling it carefully from one side to the other.

Dark sprays of blood spattered the walls all the way to the ceiling.

It took several minutes for Camille to compose himself. It would be impossible for him to think rationally in this setting -- everything he could see defied reason.
The very slight stiltedness to the language here is maintained throughout the book, and I think it's partly a result of the literary style of translation (by Frank Wynne) and partly Lemaitre's voice -- he has already won both an International Dagger from the Crime Writers Association, and France's prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt. Thus, this one's not for impatient readers or those who like predictable pacing and plotting. 

But if you can make time to accept the author's pace, there's plenty of detail and tension to carry you along, and the blend of art and investigation is complex and memorable. When the book reaches its finale, keep in mind that there is a sequel to come -- I didn't know that when I first read this, and as a result I disliked the ending. But now that I know what's coming, I see the point of it, and the shape of the book makes sense (unlike the first crime scene!).

This is probably NOT going on holiday shopping lists. But if you have "time off" or a slowdown in December/January, it's a good one to put into your stack of to-be-read. Although the idea of crimes that copy books is not a new one, and although France is becoming a popular setting for translated crime fiction reaching the American market, Lemaitre's own blend of noir is haunting and memorable. Recommended, for sure. Keep an eye on future offerings from the publisher, Quercus, to track the rest of the series.

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