Tag Archives: Irene

The Intel: Pierre Lemaitre

Pierre LemaitreWe like Pierre Lemaitre here, but you may have guessed that — we like his tightly-plotted, quick-witted novels featuring the diminutive detective Commandant Camille Verhoeven. Lemaitre is the author of Alex, Irene and most recently concluded — or perhaps hasn’t — his trilogy about Verhoeven, with Camille. We recently reviewed Camille — and, if you’re tall enough to reach the mouse, you can click here to see it.

Lemaitre worked for many years as a teacher of literature and now devotes his time to writing novels and screenplays. With Alex he won the CWA 2013 International Dagger Award and he was awarded the 2013 Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary award, for Au revoir là-haut, his epic about World War I.

We’ve long wanted to talk to Lemaitre, there’s been a big, gaping hole in the Intel Interviews until now, so we’re delighted that he’s agreed to talk to us about Camille, why he’s not nice to his characters and how, if you’re looking for advice about writing, you’re on your own…

How does Camille differ from its predecessors Alex and Irene?

CAMILLE is the final part of a trilogy, describing the destiny of a man (Camille) through those of three women (Irene, Alex and Anne). This novel does not resemble its predecessors, because the narrative is very different, but I imagine a reader who has followed this character since the beginning would want to know how his story ends.

The seeds for this final book are planted in the previous volumes – did you plan the trilogy in its entirety at the beginning?

No. Camille was not meant to be a recurring character. I wrote two other crime novels after IRENE, which did not involve detectives, but when I found myself confronted by Alex, and indeed every time I needed a police officer, Camille was always knocking on my door, in a fairly friendly way. As you know, he’s someone who has had to deal with a lot of problems in his life, so it was difficult to turn him down…

CamilleCamille Verhoeven is one of the most-singular protagonists in crime fiction – where did you get the inspiration for him?

I wanted a detective who would view the world in a slightly different way to other people. His height makes him see everything from a low-angled shot, which is unusual, and makes him view life from a different perspective to other men. Moreover, I wanted this character to be a tribute to painting, and Dutch painting in particular. I therefore created a man who thought with his hands as much as his brain: he only really understands what he can paint, because painting is a form of expressing the way he contemplates different problems.

Is it true that there’s a fourth book in your trilogy?!

Yes, it’s a book with the French title of Rosy & John – I’m very proud of it. It will be published in English as I have an excellent UK publisher, who is planning to publish all my books.

You’re a great connoisseur of crime fiction. How do French writers differ from their British or American counterparts, do you think? 

It’s quite difficult to say in a few words. I think that, (very generally) French authors spend more time on the question of the atmosphere of the novel (doubtless a legacy of Simenon) and they are perhaps more willingly concerned with political problems than social ones.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing? 

It is a lesson that is probably just as difficult for my characters as it is for me. When I was writing my second novel, I was unhappy with it from the very beginning. I re-wrote a lot, and then corrected it again – but it still didn’t work, and finally I came to understand that I had been too sparing with my main character, (a delightful young woman, who I didn’t want to suffer too much). I remembered a lesson from Jean Cocteau: “to amuse the gods, man must fall to earth.”

I realised that I loved my character, but that you can’t write a good crime novel with such sentiments; so I had the head of my main character held under water until she was almost dead – and straightaway the book was much better. I do have a reputation of not being terribly nice to my characters. I’ll let you be the judge of that.

51EZo357u5L._SY445_Give me some advice about writing…

No, everyone must find their own method, their rhythm. Maybe good advice would be to make yourself happy first of all because a reader can tell if a book has been written with an enjoyment that the author wants to share.

And if I knew how to write good books, I’d keep the recipe to myself! 

What’s next for you?

I’m planning to write a TV series, roughly 8 or 10 episodes long, about a crime that takes place in modern-day Paris. I hope I will be able to tell you more in a few weeks…

Camille – Pierre Lemaitre

CamillePoor old Camille Verhoeven. As if being four foot eleven isn’t enough of a burden, he’s also kind of unlucky in love. Pierre Lemaitre’s Camille supposedly brings his Verhoeven trilogy to a close with a novel that threatens to bring his world crashing down about him.

The blurb can’t reach the shelf:

Anne Forestier finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time when she is trapped in the middle of a raid on a jewellers on the Champs-Élysées. Shot three times, she is lucky to survive – and morbidly unlucky to remember the face of her assailant.

Followed home from her hospital bed, Anne is in grave danger. But one thing stands in her favour – a dangerously vengeful partner, carrying the scars of devastating loss, who will break all the rules to protect the woman he loves: Commandant Camille Verhœven.

So, Camille once again manages to display both the best and worst of Lemaitre’s considerable skills as a novelist. It’s a book which — as you’d expect from its predecessors — is fiercely intelligent and funny and melancholy and, in parts, extremely gripping. Because this is Lemaitre we’re talking about, the plot is as watertight as an otter’s bum. It becomes apparent that the author has been playing a long game over the course of the three books, with events from the first, Irene, playing a pivotal role in this one.

After the gruesome grand guignol of Irene and the rattlesnake plotting of Alex, Camille, with its supposedly mundane armed-robbery crime, at first fails to grip, but it picks up speed and energy along the way. Camille tells some porkies at work in order to investigate the robbery and the attack on his lady friend, and then he and his slap-happy colleagues turn Paris upside down in an attempt to find the culprit. Lemaitre cranks up the tension and, just when you’re feeling complacent about the whole thing, like a card shark, he pulls a fast one.

But there’s also the usual over-the-top violence against women, who never come off very well in Verhoeven’s world. Camille begins with a dizzying and harrowing account of the violent attack on Anne. The assault is almost comic in its slow-motion brutality, and would make Sam Peckinpah look away in embarrassment. The only other woman of note in the Verhoeven’s boss, Michard. Despite clearly being a formidable and astute woman, Lemaitre never misses an opportunity to remind us of how big her backside is.

Camille is a book infused with Lemaitre’s customary despondence. It’s a shame that one of Lemaitre’s best characters dies before the beginning of this book, and the pages sometimes seem empty without him. Camille Verhoeven himself –- who has grown on me over the course of the three books –- is one of those characters whose noble isolation and dignity grows to gargantuan proportions. The fact that he goes out on a limb for his latest flame –- short though he may be, the ladies seem to love petite Camille –- gives the arrogant chap more vulnerability this time round.

Although Alex will always be the undisputed highpoint for me, Camille is a fitting and affecting end to the Verhoeven trilogy –- although it may not be the Commendant’s final hurrah. The word on the street is that, ittle though they may be, Camille’s still got legs.

Many thanks to the MacLehose Press for the review copy. And look out for our interview with Pierre Lemaitre — coming soon to Crime Thriller Fella!

Irene – Pierre Lemaitre

51EZo357u5L._SY445_Pierre Lemaitre’s new novel Irene comes with the burden of expectation on its shoulders. Its predecessor Alex won the CWA International Dagger Award last year. I certainly enjoyed it – you can see that review from way, way back, right here. Alex was a breathless exercise in plotting, full of hair pin twists and turns.

Turns out, though, that in its native France, Alex was a follow-up book. Now Lemaitre’s first book in his Camille Verhoeven series, Irene, has been translated, allowing readers in the UK to discover the tragic events alluded to in Alex. So, basically we’re getting everything backwards. Needless to say, if you’ve already read Alex, you’ll have possibly experienced the same feeling of dread that I did reading this first, er, second book.

You may want to stand on a Yellow Pages to reach the blurb:

For Commandant Verhoeven life is beautiful: he’s happily married, and expecting his first child with the lovely Irene. But his blissful existence is punctured by a murder so savage that even the most hardened officers on the force are shaken to the core. In the face of the seemingly motiveless horror, only Verhoeven makes the vital connection – the crime scene resembles one described in a James Ellroy novel too closely for there to be any coincidence.

As the stylised murders continue, Verhoeven traces the crimes’ literary inspirations, and risks his superiors’ ire by taking out adverts to inform the killer of his progress. Before long, the case develops into a personal duel, with each man hell-bent on outsmarting his opponent. There can only be one winner – whoever has the least to lose…

As with Alex, there’s a playful quality to Irene, and a twisty duh-duh-DAH moment towards the end, which makes it difficult to  talk about it in detail without giving too much away but, look, we’ll give it a go.

Irene is meta, darling. It’s all about itself and it’s all about crime-fiction. It’s kind of French in that respect. They love all that shit over there. There’s even a quote at the beginning by Roland Barthes, the only philosopher to have died, as I understand it, by getting knocked over by a milk float. Which is by the by. He wrote about just this kind of thing, the third meaning, and all that. So, as readers, we are invited to make a few assumptions about Camille Verhoeven and about the  hunt for the killer dubbed the Novelist – and then Lemaitre pulls the rug from under our feet.

I’m in danger of boring myself here, so, without getting all airy-fairy about it – and hideously out of my depth – Irene is basically Lemaitre’s love-letter to crime fiction, and Irene is all about how we take what we read – you know, as readers of fiction – for granted.

I’ll stop vainly trying to impress, and tell you that there are gruesome murders. Very gruesome murders. There’s an investigation by an eclectic and loveable team of detectives. There’s a powerfully gripping race against time at the end, and some nice character work. Lemaitre’s characters are always good.

Except if you’re a woman. If you’re a woman you’re usually slaughtered in an unpleasant way – which is kind of tiresome. Even the titular Irene remains something of an enigma character, an ideal for the vertically challenged Camille.

In Alex he shared top-billing, but in Irene Camille is front and centre. We experience everything through him – or so we think. Poor old Camille Verhoeven. He’s a proud man who stands four foot nine or thereabouts, which is enough of a burden to bear in life, and then Lemaitre really puts his miniature protagonist through the wringer.

I like Camille as a character very much. He’s a singular, old-school detective, and his dependable nature and his tantrums, and his love of sitting at home with the wife reading books on classical painting, contrasts sharply with the grotesque slaughter that he investigates.

This contrast always struck me as curious in Alex, another bloodthirsty novel. Camille is such a dazzlingly aristocratic little creature, and there he was surrounded by all this grim stuff. it was almost as if Poirot had somehow wandered by mistake into the pages of LA Confidential. In this novel, Ellroy’s universe literally does invade Camille’s world when the Novelist recreates the murder of The Black Dahlia.

Anyway, Irene is an enjoyable read. But not as successful a piece of work, perhaps, as Alex – there’s no shame in that, not many novels are. It’s more of a slow-burn, and there’s a lot to enjoy here – unless you’re squeamish, then you may not like it all, oh boy, no. What really shines through is Lemaitre’s love of the genre. If you know your classic crime-fiction you’ll really like this book, and all its sly and bloodythirsty references.

Oh, hold on. It wasn’t a milk-float. It was a laundry van. My mistake.