Irène is chronologically the first novel in Pierre Lemaitre’s trilogy featuring Parisian police detective Commandant Camille Verhœven, yet in the UK it was published second, after Alex and is followed this spring by the third volume, Camille. I reviewed Alex in 2013 (click here) and it was the best crime thriller I read all that year. It had pace, twists and turns, some really stomach-churning nastiness and a fantastic lead in Verhœven, the four foot eleven detective with a big character.
Although Alex refers obliquely to the events of Irène, I can understand why the publisher chose to bring it out first, because it does stand alone as well as being either the middle or the start of a trilogy. You don’t need to know what happened in Irene at all. If you’ve read Alex, you’ll know what I’m referring to in Irene, but I’ll try and be as spoiler-free as I can!
It’s another evening at the brigade criminelle, Paris’s murder squad, and Camille is called out by his team-member Louis to what he described as ‘…a clusterf**k out in Courbevoie.’ When Camille arrives, he finds a murder scene unlike any other he’s seen:
Camille had no time to worry about the strange atmosphere that pervaded the room as his gaze was immediately arrested by the head of a woman nailed to the wall.
Hardly had he taken three paces into the room that he found himself faced with a scene he could not have imagined even in his worst nightmares: severed fingers, torrents of clotted blood, the stench of excrement and gutted entrails. Instinctively, he was reminded of Goya’s painting, “Saturn Devouring His Son”, and for a moment he could see the terrifying face, the bulging eyes, the crimson mouth, the utter madness. (p25)
Sorry for that awful image, but it gets worse, believe me – the crimes depicted in these novels are not for the faint-hearted. On the wall, written in blood using the severed fingers, is the message ‘I AM BACK’ with a fingerprint carefully pressed at the end – these murders have been staged. Perhaps predictably, the press arrive before they’ve even managed to get the bodies out of the building. It will take days for the scene to be completely analysed, but one thing comes through – the fake fingerprint relates to a cold case from 2001 which the press had dubbed ‘The Tremblay Butcher’. They will need to reopen the file.
Camille goes home, his head full of images from the cases. It is that night when his wife Irène tells him that she is pregnant. He finds it hard to keep the two things separate in his brain:
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 realised 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 Verhœven- 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 outce 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 mend who had mutilated those women, who had fucked them, raped them, killed them, dismembered them, splattering the walls with their blood. (p71)
Inspiration will strike to progress the case. I wasn’t going to say, but it is clearly stated on the back cover – there turns out to be a literary connection between the murders, each being staged in homage to a classic crime novel. Dubbed ‘The Novelist’, which book will he use next? It will become a classic chase between the serial killer and his hunter. A race against time, and the press don’t help.
Of the classic murders from fiction reproduced by this serial killer, I’ve actually read three but wasn’t prepared enough to recognise the first two mentioned, I was with the game on another and have added a fourth to my wishlist! Funnily enough, I was contemplating re-reading one of the books referenced anyway – I read this novel when it was first published in 1991 and think it will shock me much more now to read it. It was controversial then, and remains so now, but I’m not going to tell you which book it is, tease that I am, although you might guess from its notoriety. Frank Wynne’s translation is, once more, truly excellent and seamless given all the extra reading he’ll have had to do. The French feel is there, without the need to insert French words everywhere except for police ranks and department titles.
The relationship between Camille, his boss and his team are all part of the narrative. It is Louis whom we get to know particularly well in this novel. From a rich family, Louis is always impeccably attired, there is no need for him to work as a junior detective, but he is clever and extremely good at detail earning Camille’s almost fatherly respect.
I enjoyed reading Irène hugely, and read Camille back to back (but am saving that to talk about for another time and place). If you enjoy crime novels of the serial-killer variety, I urge you to steel yourself to see past the depravity of the murders in these books and instead read them for the characterisation of Camille Verhœven and his colleagues, for the twists and turns and cleverness of the plots, and for the sheer thrill of the chase. They are truly unputdownable. (10/10)
* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon (affiliate link), please click below:
Irène (The Camille Verhoeven Trilogy) by Pierre Lemaitre, trans Frank Wynne. Maclehose press 2014, paperback, 400 pages.