Saturday, March 04, 2017

3 by Pierre Lemaitre (from The Life Sentence site)

Continuing my reposts of my reviews from the late lamented website The Life Sentence (now offline), here's an overview of Pierre Lemaitre's first 3 twisty thrillers.

-        In his Commandant Verhoeven Trilogy, Pierre Lemaitre has set out to investigate the history and the possibilities of crime fiction, and noir in particular. In Irène (2014), the narrator offers an analysis of the career of James Ellroy that could serve as a description of noir writing in general: as his “style evolved, it became more savage, more visceral as Ellroy began to trade in inhumanity at its most elemental. The seediest districts of the city became a metaphor for a desperate, disillusioned humanity. Love took on the acrid taste of urban tragedy.” Yet Lemaitre refreshes these tropes of noir by turning them inside out. Irène takes crime fiction not only as the genre of the story but also the subject and the structural principle of the novel. In Alex (2014), the author twists and re-twists an abducted woman’s relationship to both the perpetrator and the police until the story reaches a final clarity. In Camille, all the principal characters are lying, to each other, to themselves, and even to the reader: Lemaitre is making clear the importance of prevarication (as well as unreliable narrators) in crime writing.

-        But in no way are these books a dry exercise in crime fiction writing or a farcical metafictional jest. Each of the novels, and all three as a group, are among the very best French crime novels to be translated into English so far (and there is some very strong competition). The first installment in the series, Irène, begins with the case of a battered woman but moves on very quickly to the principal plot, the case of a horrific murder and dismemberment of two women in an apartment on the periphery of Paris. As the gruesome details of the murders accumulate and Commandant Camille Verhoeven of the brigade criminelle pursues the few leads in the case, a reader with a heavy heart may come to the same conclusion as the Commandant, who early on in the story “feels immensely weary, because this whole thing is predictable, banal.” The violence against women, the murder of prostitutes, the pursuit of suspects among the pimps, property developers, and petit bourgeoisie seems all too typical of the genre, a run-of-the-mill serial killer story distinguished mostly by the Parisian setting and the quirky team of detectives. Verhoeven himself is a tiny man, whose growth was stunted by his artist mother’s tobacco habit, but the quirkiness of the detective and his colleagues is itself typical of the genre (think of Fred Vargas’s Adamsberg, another eccentric French detective of small stature). However, Lemaitre’s book is more than the simple depiction of the “universe of carnage, peopled by impulsive psychopaths, shady deals, and old scores settled,” as the detective himself announces. Lemaitre is less concerned with displaying all the sadistic, misogynist carnage and more interested in pursuing the essential nature of crime fiction and of the relationship of the storyteller to the reader, but a subtext of the whole trilogy is the dependence of crime fiction on violence against women.

-        After the double murder becomes linked to an earlier murder by the “rather American exoticism” of the crimes as well as a fingerprint match in both cases, another connection between the crimes comes gradually into focus: both crime scenes seem patterned on literary precedents, well-known novels by James Ellroy and Bret Easton Ellis. Thus the press dubs the killer “the Novelist.” From that point on, the brigade criminelle relies on information provided by sources such as one character’s “authoritative introduction to crime fiction,” and another’s survey of the novels published in Gallimard’s famous Série Noire.

-        After other crimes, present and past, prove to be based on Scottish, French, and Swedish crime classics, the narrative itself turns inside out: the team of detectives discovers that the killer has been keeping a journal of his murders, and Lemaitre refers to a detail of his own life that the killer gets wrong, a detail that makes us suddenly question who has been telling the story we’ve been reading up to that point. Lemaitre upends the book in a logical and devastating way, while ultimately remaining true to the pact between the author and the reader, not in the same way but in the same spirit perhaps as Agatha Christie’s notorious ending of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, when the narrator turned out to be spectacularly unreliable. The writer in both cases reminds us of the narrativity of the text — that we’re only seeing what the narrator wants us to see — while maintaining the credibility and the emotional truth of the story.

-        In Alex, which takes place four years after the events of Irène, Commandant Verhoeven is a wreck, devastated by the loss of his wife and unwilling to take on anything with living victims, accepting only, “Cases where the deaths are behind you, not in front. No kidnappings. Camille wants his dead well and truly dead, corpses with no comeback.” But the brutal kidnapping of a young woman (Alex), which opens the book, occurs when Verhoeven’s replacement as head of the brigade criminelle is out of town, and the diminutive Commandant is tricked by his boss and friend, Divisionnaire Le Guen, into taking the case temporarily, with the inevitable result that it becomes his case. For the first third of the novel, the narrative alternates between the frenzied pace of police procedure, in the effort to save the kidnapped woman, and the portrayal of the brutal conditions of her captivity. As in the beginning of the previous novel, we are on standard plot territory here, a woman severely confined and tortured by a thuggish man who repeatedly says, “I’m going to watch you die, you filthy whore.” But as her torment and the investigation proceed, both Alex, the victim, and Camille, the investigator, realize that there is a link between the kidnapper and his captive. Their pursuit of this link provokes disastrous action by the police, but also a prefiguring of the sudden shift in the middle portion of the book that turns the story on its head: a shift that overturns both the woman-as-victim narrative and the entire genre of the serial killer (all the while remaining full of terror and torture).

-        In the third section of Alex, Verhoeven is following her not in the present but in her past, seeking the roots of her actions and personality, in large part through a long series of interviews with her brother (perhaps a reference to the extended interrogation in Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Roseanna, also referred to in Irène). The awful truth that Camille discovers will explain all of the book’s twists, and lead to yet another twist in the story.

-        Camille, which has the most straightforward plot of the three novels, takes the Commandant back to the beginning of the trilogy: “His first wife was murdered, a tragedy from which he took years to recover. When you have faced such an ordeal, you assume that nothing more can happen to you. This is the trap.” Again, the ordeal happens not directly to him, but to the new woman in his life, Anne Forestier, who walks in on a jewelry store robbery and is beaten nearly to death. No one in the police knows about his new relationship, allowing Camille to step in as lead investigator, a lapse in personal and professional judgment that will leave his life in tatters.

-        The story of Camille is a three-day race against time, as the jewelry store robber seems determined to return to kill the witness and Camille pushes toward preventing him from doing so. The narrative focus is divided among an increasingly irrational Commandant, the surviving but terribly hurt Anne, and the man who attacked her (who gives us his story in his own voice). All three narratives explore the extreme violence that Anne suffers and its echoes in the story of Irène, and the lies that all of them are telling each other (as well as the truths they are all withholding from the reader) create overlapping dramatic ironies as well as contributing to the tension driving the story forward.

But even when we see the story from the points of view of Anne and her attacker, the overlapping of Camille’s past and present draws us back to Camille as the center of everything. There is a brutal honesty in the Commandant’s focus on himself: he feels responsible for Anne, but what he feels is not really sympathy but regret for what he has himself lost: “The woman who lies swollen and bandaged before him now has nothing of the magic, all that remains is the outer shell, and ugly, terribly prosaic body.” Even her own betrayal is ultimately less important to him than his loss of the “magic” of their affair. For all the violence against women in the trilogy (as in much crime fiction), it is Camille’s self-absorption that leads the narrative down into disaster and a final resolution. Having wrecked his career by lying to everyone in order to maintain control of the pursuit of the attacker, and having used the attacker’s own strategy to finally turn the tables on him, Camille reaches an abject state of loss that makes it possible for him to confront his own history, in particular the parts played by his mother and his wife. In Camille’s story there is a horrible assertion of male ego. This man of boy-like stature, having hidden his damaged lover in his mother’s studio in the forest (also the site of his wife’s murder) achieves a catharsis at the cost of several women’s misery. But that is a truth that the Commandant does not face. Lemaitre’s trilogy takes apart the structure of noir fiction and puts it back together in a new way but remains, like Camille (in his professional capacity), dependent on the genre’s reliance on violence against women. Lemaitre has continued to write about Commandant Verhoeven, extending the trilogy into a series. As new novels appear in English, it will be fascinating to see how far Lemaitre can extend his reimagining of the roman policier, as well as how he will develop his central character after the apotheosis at the end of the trilogy.

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