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.