A police man carrying the burden of a personal tragedy, forced to take up a case that reminds him of the tragedy? Check. A policeman who is confrontational, prickly and impervious to authority? Check. A higher official who seems to have bone to pick with the policeman, trying to bring him down a peg? Check. With such standard templates, Pierre Lemaitre's 'Alex' does not start on a very promising note, but one cannot guess in his wildest imaginations what is going to happen in the course of the novel. 'Alex', a 30 year old women is kidnapped at the beginning of the novel and Camille Verhoeven is assigned the case. Verhoeven's wife was kidnapped and murdered a few years ago and Verhoeven has not yet come to terms with it when this case is assigned to him.
Lemaitre does not unravel the novel with one clue leading to the next, with each opening new doors till we reach the end. No, what he does is more complicated. He solves one problem while creating a new problem for Verhoeven and us reader to mull about. It's not just for Verhoeven or us,the problems created are for Lemaitre too as we think, 'ah, let's see how he gets out of this' and yes, he does get out of it gracefully, exceeding our expectations. It's as if Lemaitre wanted to test himself, by keep setting new roadblocks for himself during the course of the novel and see how he could clear them. And these are not just small clues or small solutions, but those which completely alter the novels course and how we look at it. It is, as they say in Mumbai tapori lingo 'Ekdum Jhakaas'.
Just as we get used to Lemaitre's stringing us along and starting feeling a bit complacent, he throws us another googly at the end of the first part. What started off as standard crime fiction, morphs into a thriller which reminds one of 'Anatomy of a Manhunt', 'Anatomy of a Kill' portions of 'The Day of the Jackal'. No, this is not a spoiler and the novels have nothing similar, it's just that the atmosphere and the tension created reminds one of it. One watches the happenings like he would follow two top players in opposite sides of the draw scything through the opposition, anticipating with fearful excitement the summit clash in the final. Just as we await the final confrontation, Lemaitre throws us another 'doozy' which leaves us dazed as we lurch into the final part.
What we see in the final part is far more horrifying than the events of the previous parts as we finally understand the motivations of the characters and more than that come face to face with a deviant mind that is so rooted in reality. It leaves us with the sobering thought as to who can be trusted and who is safe in this world. The manner in which the revelations themselves occur are a delight though, where Verhoeven and his team work like a spider spinning it's web, waiting for the accused to trip on his own lies and catch him in their net. It just shows that, even with all the technological/scientific advancements, policing is at it's core about a lot of legwork, painfully gathering evidence, with all the advancements acting as support ,rather than replacing it. Just as we come to turns with the horror unraveled, Lemaitre gives us one final shock, not a 'twist in the tail of the tale' but 'a twist in the twist in the tail of the tale'. It's the only part where I would crib a bit, not because it's not logical (Lot's of clues on this are scattered beforehand, which we understand only now) but that this sort of trick has been handled elsewhere too. Even one of the high priests of crime fiction has done it (mentioning the story/author would be a spoiler though), though it must be said Lemaitre does this trick in a much better manner, without requiring us to to need any suspension of disbelief. Its just that Lemaitre has completely flummoxed at each turn with unique twists, that this final twist seems a bit bland (though in other lesser works, it would be the high point of the entire novel). But it's an ending that does serve a certain purpose and as I write it, in fact it does seem to be the only logical ending, rather than the twist that precedes it. But all the great works in crime fiction, finally we are not left with just a sense of justice happening, but with a sense of loss as we meditate on the events of the past and see how/whether any of this could have been avoided, as there are no final victors when violence is involved.
Throughout the novel, as while as relentlessly hammering us with this twists, Lemaitre pulls no punches in detailing the brutality involved in the present as well as the past. As the past unravels, we understand that this is no gratuitous brutality, described for the sake of shocking readers, but a reaction to the brutality that happened earlier. The entire novel is set in simple present/present continuous tense which is disconcerting, because it's like watching the events unfold right before our eyes and not like listening to a narration by the author. We get the feeling like the author himself is clueless like Veerhoven and the readers as to how things will turn out (though this is just a trick of the mind) and this is a scary thought when we feel that no one (including the author) knows what is going to happen.
And as befitting a series of novels, the main characters are well etched too. Along with standard criteria that is needed for policemen in such novels (mentioned at the beginning of the post), Verhoeven has also some distinct qualities. For one his height is 4'11. It could just be another way of Lemaitre differentiating his works from the clutter, or it could also be a homage to the French's greatest general, the 'Le petit caporal' (though there are calls to reconsider the myth about the general's height). Like Napolean, Verhoeven marshals his troops well, has a great relationship with them (in spite of his prickliness) and has their unquestioned loyalty. He has his moments of weakness though, which endears him more to us. His lieutenants, Louis and Armand are also characters one would like to spend time with, particularly the modern day 'Uncle Scrooge', Armand. The relationship between them is woven well into the novel, without intruding on it's core. As the other novels in the series get translated, we should get to know them more.
This is the first novel of Lemaitre to be translated in English and he does make a grand entrance to the international crime fiction stage holding us completely riveted. Just recommending this novel would be an injustice, this is a must read for all crime fiction aficionados. This stunning 'tour de force' is a keeper.