Bought it on Wednesday, read it by Friday, blogged on Saturday

Alex by Pierre Lemaitre

Translated by Frank Wynne

Alex is one of those thrillers that has been quietly gathering a word of mouth momentum since its publication earlier this year. Now the paperback is out, it is going to go stratospheric as Gone Girl did, (my review of that here). A French teacher friend has been recommending Alex to our book group ever since we chose a Fred Vargas novel (see here) for last month’s read. The paperback was officially published on August 1st, but a day before that, I bought a copy (from my local indie bookshop). Prompted by a tease from Simon S about a forthcoming blog post about a thriller he’d read that was his new ‘thriller of the year’, (his review here), I had to read it too. I started on Thursday night, resuming when I woke up on Friday. Basically, I didn’t do anything except have breakfast until I’d finished it.

The story starts with Alex.  An ugly duckling as a teenager, she has blossomed into a beautiful young woman, but she is shy and insecure.  If she puts on a wig though, she can pretend to be more confident than she actually is…

For example, it had never occurred to her that she could wear a red wig. It had been a revelation. She couldn’t believe how different she looked. Wigs seemed so superficial and yet the moment she first put one on, she felt her whole life had changed.

One night she dresses up and treats herself to a dinner for one at a local restaurant, but as she walks home she is abducted, beaten and bundled into an anonymous white van.  Her captor will take her to an abandoned warehouse and suspend her from the ceiling in a wooden cage, naked, injured, filthy, waiting to die.

Luckily, her kidnapping was witnessed by a passer-by, for otherwise no-one would have known. No-one reports her as missing, she is an enigma. But with a kidnapping time is of the essence, and reluctantly Commandant Camille Verhœven has to accept the case. Camille has been easing back into work after personal tragedy in which his pregnant wife was kidnapped and died – he hasn’t handled such a case since, but is forced to as his colleague is unavailable. It’s a race against time, but aided by his team, Camille’s investigative powers will develop leads from the smallest scraps of information. Will he be able to save Alex? Will the pressure from the Juge d’instruction (French equivalent of a District Attorney) get to him?

I can’t tell you any more plot developments beyond those above from the first couple of chapters.  Suffice it to say, things get very nasty indeed. I chose to leave it to go to sleep at exactly the wrong spot (p76) leading to vivid dreams ‘Oh rats!’ as Indiana Jones would say, which gives you a clue about what is happening).

In order to find Alex, Verhœven will have to identify her and understand her – and her own story is as jaw-dropping as any I’ve ever read. The twists and turns as Alex’s past is gradually revealed through Camille’s investigations are many, and they’re so ingenious.  I did gasp ‘Oh my God!’ out loud at one critical point that made me cringe at the brutal nature of what I was reading.  You have been warned.  I’m also rather glad I didn’t have the original trade paperback cover (right), as that is rather offputting don’t you think!

If Alex is an enigma, Camille is a larger than life character, if not in stature.  At just under five feet tall, he has had to use the full force of his personality all his life to gain respect.  He has no family – their unborn child died with his wife, he has no siblings, and at the start of the novel his remaining parent, his mother, leaving him to sort our the remains of her life. He lives alone with his cat, and his boss Le Guen has sensed it is time to thrust him back into the front-line of work.

I really like Camille’s straight-forward calling a spade a spade approach. It may win him no friends, but gets to the point. Here, he’s describing someone…

This Maciak was so socially integrated he became an alcoholic. He drinks like a Pole, which makes him a good Frenchman. The kind that wants to preserve the French national heritage. So he goes to work in a bistro. He washes dishes, waits tables, he’s promoted to head waiter – we’re witnessing a miracle of upward mobility through the downward application of alcohol.

I particularly like that last sentence. I really engaged with Camille Verhœven, and am delighted to find that he will feature again in Lemaitre’s work.  His team are also strong characters, in particular, Armand – who is a classic scrounger whose wallet would be full of moths; Armand provides the moments of light relief.

If you enjoyed Gone Girl and have the stomach for strong stuff, this brilliantly plotted, pacey thriller could be for you. I loved it!  (10/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Alex by Pierre Lemaitre, Maclehose press, Feb 2013, paperback 354 pages.

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