Upon winning the prestigious 2013 Crime Writers Association International Dagger Award, the judges praised Alex by saying, “An original and absorbing ability to leash incredulity in the name of the fictional contract between author and reader . . . A police procedural, a thriller against time, a race between hunted and hunter, and a whydunnit, written from multiple points of view that explore several apparently parallel stories which finally meet.”
Alex Prévost—kidnapped, savagely beaten, suspended from the ceiling of an abandoned warehouse in a tiny wooden cage—is running out of time. Her abductor appears to want only to watch her die. Will hunger, thirst, or the rats get her first?
Apart from a shaky eyewitness report of the abduction, Police Commandant Camille Verhoeven has nothing to go on: no suspect, no leads, and no family or friends anxious to find a missing loved one. The diminutive and brilliant detective knows from bitter experience the urgency of finding the missing woman as quickly as possible—but first he must understand more about her.
As he uncovers the details of the young woman’s singular history, Camille is forced to acknowledge that the person he seeks is no ordinary victim. She is beautiful, yes, but also extremely tough and resourceful. Before long, saving Alex’s life will be the least of Commandant Verhoeven’s considerable challenges.
A 2013 Financial Times Book of the Year
Shortlisted for the 2014 RUSA Reading List Horror Award
Her life is a series of frozen images, a spool of film that has snapped in the projector—it is impossible for her to rewind, to refashion her story, to find new words. The next time she has dinner here, she might stay a little later, and he might be waiting for her outside when she leaves—who knows? Alex knows. Alex knows all too well how these things go. It’s always the same story. Her fleeting encounters with men never become love stories; this is a part of the film she’s seen many times, a part she remembers. That’s just the way it is.
It is completely dark now and the night is warm. A bus has just pulled up. She quickens her step, the driver sees her in the rearview mirror and waits. She runs for the bus but, just as she’s about to get on, changes her mind, decides to walk a little way. She signals to the driver, who gives a regretful shrug, as if to say Oh well, such is life
. He opens the bus door anyway.
“There won’t be another bus after me. I’m the last one tonight . . .”
Alex smiles, thanks him with a wave. It doesn’t matter. She’ll walk the rest of the way. She’ll take the rue Falguière and then the rue Labrouste.
She’s been living near the Porte de Vanves for three months now. She moves around a lot. Before this, she lived near Porte de Clignancourt and before that on the rue du Commerce. Most people hate moving, but for Alex it’s a need. She loves it. Maybe because, as with the wigs, it feels like she’s changing her life. It’s a recurring theme. One day she’ll change her life.
A little way in front of her, a white van pulls onto the pavement to park. To get past, Alex has to squeeze between the van and the building. She senses a presence, a man; she has no time to turn. A fist slams between her shoulder blades, leaving her breathless. She loses her balance, topples forward, her forehead banging violently against the van with a dull clang; she drops everything she’s carrying, her hands flailing desperately to find something to catch hold of—they find nothing.
Excerpted from Alex by Pierre Lemaitre. Copyright © 2013 by Pierre Lemaitre. Excerpted by permission of MacLehose Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
About Pierre Lemaitre
Pierre Lemaitre has worked for many years as a teacher of literature. His novels to date have earned him exceptional critical and public acclaim as a master of the crime novel and have won him the Prix du Premier Roman de Cognac 2006, the Prix du Meilleur Polar Francophone 2009, and the Prix du Polar Européen du Point 2010. Alex is his first novel to be translated into English, and won the presitigious 2013 Crime Writers Association International Dagger Award. In 2013 Lemaitre was the recipient of the prestigious Prix Goncourt, the highest literary honor in France, for Au revoir là-haut.
About Frank Wynne
Frank Wynne has translated works by Michel Houellebecq, Boualem Sansal, and many more. He won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2005 for his translation of Frédéric Beigbeder's Windows on the World.
Your two main characters, Alex and Camille, both have unisex names. How do you name your characters? What meanings do these names have for you?
For the secondary characters, I usually just look in the phone book for a name that matches the idea I have of them. For the main characters, it is more challenging because I spend more time with them. With Alex herself it was clear from the beginning: a short name, ambiguous, international, and androgynous to echo Verhoeven’s first name Camille… Alex's surname comes from a classic French novel, Manon Lescaut.
Your writing at times feels extremely cinematic. Have you been inspired by any films or filmmakers in particular? Which other authors have inspired and influenced your style, both within the thriller/suspense genre and in other genres?
I belong to the first generation of authors born with both television and cinema, so it is quite natural that my writing would feel the effect of that. Moreover, I was really influenced by "cinematic" novels such as War and Peace or The Count of Monte Cristo. Then, there is also my method of writing: firstly because my novels are divided into scenes, like in a screenplay; also because my way of conceiving those scenes consists in projecting them onto my "internal screen". Writing, for me, is describing what I see upon that screen.
Despite the seriousness and horror of the novel’s plot, your writing is sprinkled with a liberal amount of humor. In your view, what is the place of humor in the thriller genre?
I think that humor, for a novelist and for anyone else, isn't something you choose. It is inherent to one's personality, or not. In crime novels, humor has a much more peculiar effect than in other fictional genres because it creates a strong contrast with the dark circumstances of the crimes. Humor is a great way to achieve effects that no other method would permit so efficiently.
The mirror is a strong and important trope in the book, especially for Alex, who is able to check in on herself and her life status by analyzing her outward appearance. What was your process for conceiving and describing your characters’ appearances? Do they have any symbolic significance?
The physical appearance of my characters is rarely fully described. I try, as often as possible, to resort economically to two or three specific characteristics to condense the peculiarities of a character. Ideally, and it's never easy to do so, those few characteristics should be enough to express what is common to every hairdresser and specific to this hairdresser in particular.
Art, the art market as well as the personal life of the artist and her effect on her son, is an important thread to understanding the character of Camille. Why was it important to you to have your Commandant be so intimately linked to art and artistically sensitive?
If, as I said, Alex is quite similar to Manon Lescaut, Camille is very close to Toulouse Lautrec. It is a great regret of my life that I could never sketch, so I created a sketcher to make up for it. Another benefit from having an artist as a character (even a failed one like Camille) is that he can speak a different language than that of the investigation. Finally, creating Camille's mother, a bad woman and at the same time a great artist, was a way for me to put Camille under the sign of a contradiction that will follow him all through the trilogy.
What kind of research did you do in order to render characters, scenes and descriptions so vivid and believable?
I don't do much research at all. I am not interested in making sure that the gun, the shop or the newspaper I am mentioning really exists. Whenever I need a street, sometimes I find one, but sometimes I make one up. What I am really interested in isn't the accuracy of my descriptions, but the truth of my characters, so that the reader feels close to them (positively or negatively)—he considers them, while reading, as real people.
A book needs to have some sort of universal appeal to work in foreign markets, and this one certainly does survive translation. Do you think this is a story that could take place anywhere in the world, or is there something particularly Parisian or French about it? In other words, if this book were set in some other country or city, would it lose something truly essential to the story?
I would love to be able to say that my book tells a universal story! It is the dream (or the fantasy) of every novelist to be read and understood as much by a Brazilian reader as by an Inuit. In Alex, I create a setting in Paris to give a color and atmosphere to the story, but I try to develop themes that I believe are universal : revenge, family neuroses, violence against women, and so on.
"Before you can say Gone Girl, he discovers the crime is far from random and Alex anything but an ordinary victim. This gritty page-turner, Alex, is the first in a promised trilogy.Plus, s'il vous plaît. A-"-Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly
“An auspicious English-language debut . . . With quiet virtuosity, Lemaitre moves the narrative through its various levels toward a concluding act of retribution that is both ingeniously conceived and immensely satisfying. Tricky, disturbing and ultimately affecting, Alex is a welcome addition to the rising tide of European crime fiction that has followed in the wake of Stieg Larsson’s death. Larsson’s many readers should take this book to their hearts and should find themselves waiting, with some degree of impatience, for the next Verhoeven novel to appear.”— Bill Sheehan, The Washington Post Book World
“An original and absorbing ability to leash incredulity in the name of the fictional contract between author and reader . . . A police procedural, a thriller against time, a race between hunted and hunter, and a whydunnit, written from multiple points of view that explore several apparently parallel stories which finally meet.”—CWA International Dagger Award Judges citation
"Genuinely unpredictable in a way few suspense novels are." —Charles Finch, USA Today
"Lemaitre’s plot is laid out with mathematical precision: a beautiful woman is kidnapped, stripped naked, thrown into a cage and subjected to the systematic torture of a brutal captor . . . Revenge narratives go all the way back to the Greeks, but it’s the vagina dentate component that sets a specimen like Alex apart, as Lemaitre adapts Larsson’s blueprint with moves of his own." —Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review
“Lemaitre’s impressive American debut . . . unexpected plot twists will keep readers turning the pages.”—Publishers Weekly (starred and boxed review)
"An eloquent thriller with a denouement that raises eyebrows as it speeds the pulse." —Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“Fascinating . . . filled with many twists and turns of plot along with a huge surprise.”—Connie Fletcher, Booklist
“Will keep you turning pages until well past your bedtime—with all the lights on, of course.”—Library Journal
“What begins as a search for a missing person soon becomes a beguiling series of investigations linked only by Alex, a Parisian version of Lisbeth Salander. Camille, volatile, brilliant and just under 5ft, is an equally riveting figure.”—John Dugdale, The Sunday Times
“Hypnotic . . . [a] remarkably determined and dangerous young woman—a woman who admittedly makes Lisbeth Salander look like Mary Poppins.”—Raven Crime Reads
“The winner of countless French crime-writing prizes, Lemaître is far too canny to join the ranks of thriller authors who merely revel in disturbing details and gory crimes. Where another novel would have finished, Alex is just beginning, and the book moves from read-as-fast-as-you-can horror to an intricately plotted race to a dark truth … There's humour here, and characters to return to, but really Alex is about thrills. And as the novel barrels triumphantly towards its unexpected but satisfying conclusion, it's in this respect that it deliver.”—Alison Flood, The Observer
“Relentlessly gripping . . . Various subtle variations of the crime novel are handled with aplomb . . . By page 200 you may believe that you're moving to a pulse-raising conclusion. But you will be wrong; in some senses, the novel has only just begun.”—Barry Forshaw, The Independent
“[With] a spectacular plot twist and the tension, along with the body count, mounts ever higher – an invigoratingly scary, one-sitting read.”—Laura Wilson, The Guardian
“What sets this work apart from the current crop of crime fiction is how utterly it confounds our expectations and challenges our moral certainties . . . [Alex is] book that will make you think, and one that any game reader will not easily forget.”—Christine Cremen, The Age (Melbourne)
“Fascinating, horrifying, not to be missed.”—Rolling Stone (Italy)
“Both a psychological thriller and a police procedural, it enthralls at every stage of its unpredictability . . . Grippingly original.”— Marcel Berlins, The Times
“A weaver of dark and disturbing crime fiction . . . Lemaître brings his stinging, bitter story to a genuinely unexpected conclusion. We are not in the comfortable world of Inspector Maigret here—this is harsh, fierce crime writing with a Gauloise tinge. It would not be out of place filmed in black-and-white by the late, lamented Francois Truffaut, who loved crime tales like this. ”—Geoffrey Wansell, The Daily Mail
“An off-beat and slightly surreal Parisian mystery . . . A warmly recommended read.”—Jessica Mann, Literary Review
“Lemaître has achieved a milestone with his new novel: half mystery, half thriller, 100 percent successful.”—Jean-Christophe Buisson, Le Figaro
“Divided into three distinct acts [Alex] offers an intriguing structure … Lemaitre is not only providing a fascinating variation of the traditional crime narrative but also a commentary on the genre itself. Hailed as the most important crime novel in translation since Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Alex similarly features as an intriguingly flawed feminist heroine bent on vengeance, and will likely prove a sensation of the crime fiction year.”—Declan Burke, The Irish Times
“Exhilarating, literary, Hitchcockian . . . This new investigation of Commandant Camille Verhoeven resumes with the sense of suspense, the art of the unexpected twist, the play on emotions that so seduced us.”—Le Monde
“I was struck by Pierre Lemaitre’s short, sharp, staccato voice, right from the off. And it makes a gritty, hard-to-read-in-a-good-way tome that much more relentless . . . Paris is a dark, scary, borderline disgusting place, and like the rest of the characters in the book, is not blessed with any romantic flourishes. This is down and dirty, and not for the faint of heart . . . Lemaitre keeps it real, and really keeps it going: it is, I imagine, what it’s like to be in a car chase, in the movies. Kudos as well to the translator, Frank Wynne, who keeps the Gallic tone while perfectly infusing it with English idioms.”—Sue Conley, The Evening Herald (Dublin)
“The torture scenes are enough to make you squirm, with translator Frank Wynne retaining the natural flow of the French language while conveying the horrifying chapters with rats with frightening realism.”—The Herald Sun (Australia)
“Forget Scandi Noir: French noir is where it’s at. With torture scenes that make American Psycho read like Dear Zoo, it even has a Gone Girl-esque twist.”—Shortlist magazine
A top 10 Amazon best books pick, September 2013
"Every so often a crime thriller comes along that leaves you breathless . . . Alex is one such book and you are guaranteed a tale of the unexpected from start to finish. With its mesmerising female protagonist, and unique detective this is an absolute gem of a crime novel that is wonderfully dark, scary, mad, bad and dangerous to know, but just far too good to miss…"—Raven Crime Reads, Top 5 Crime Reads of 2013
SELECTION 2013 Texas Library Assoc. Lariat Award
FINALIST 2014 American Library Association Reading List
About the Book
With hairpin plot twists, characters deep enough to confound a psychoanalyst, and an intense yet tasteful dose of heart-stopping violence, Alex by Pierre Lemaitre is an unforgettable experience that leaves readers with as many tantalizing questions as satisfying answers.
1. What are some of the narrative and descriptive techniques Pierre Lemaitre uses to create effective plot twists?
2. Does Commandant Verhoeven’s torment over the kidnapping and murder of his wife help or hinder his abilities to solve the case at the center of the novel? Does it seem that he believes he can find some measure of closure over Irene’s murder if he can solve this case?
3. At the end of the novel, do you believe the conclusion Verhoeven has reached about Alex’s motivations is accurate? Is Vasseur guilty? (If so, of what?) What might Verhoeven have—intentionally or not—overlooked?
4. After finishing, review the first chapter describing Alex’s “normal” day-to-day existence.
5. What clues does Lemaitre provide here that hint at what lies below the surface?
6. Is Alex a sympathetic character? Which of her actions can you justify or even relate to, and which do you find objectively repulsive?
7. Do you think Alex’s fear and acceptance of death is genuine when she is in captivity, or does it seem as though she is seeing several moves ahead, like a calculating chessmaster?
8. What is the significance to the novel of Maud Verhoeven, Commandant Verhoeven’s late mother who was a renowned painter? How does her “ghost”—as represented in her paintings and his memories—affect how he goes about his life and work?
9. Discuss the scene with Alex and Bobby, the devoutly religious truck driver. What do we learn about Alex’s attitudes towards God, spirituality and the afterlife? How do these attitudes manifest in her actions throughout the novel?