In kidnapping cases, the first few hours are crucial. After that, the chances of being found alive go from slim to nearly none. Alex Prévost – beautiful, resourceful, tough – may be no ordinary victim, but her time is running out. Commandant Camille Verhoeven and his detectives have nothing to go on: no suspect, no lead, rapidly diminishing hope. All they know is that a girl was snatched off the streets of Paris and bundled into a white van. The enigma that is the fate of Alex will keep Verhoeven guessing until the bitter, bitter end. And before long, saving her life will be the least of his worries…

Every so often a crime thriller comes along that leaves you breathless and takes you on a disturbing journey into the darkest recesses of human experience- ‘Alex’ is one such book and you are guaranteed a tale of the unexpected from start to finish. Don’t expect any spoilers or dwelling on the plot from me, as I want you all to be as surprised by this twisty tale as I was, but all I will say is, you are in for more than one shock or two along the way. Intriguing huh?

The book opens innocuously enough with the kidnapping of a young woman, the eponymous Alex, but as the grim details of her incarceration unfold, and quite frankly, will probably haunt your dreams, she finds herself having to draw on every ounce of her own resource-fulness to survive and seek her escape. With the police seemingly at a loss to identify her and, to more importantly track her and her kidnapper down, what is it about this woman that eludes their detection and has forced a man to take such serious measures as to patiently stalk her, and then seek to watch her die in a pretty damn barbarous way? Well, I’m not telling, but suffice to say when the true nature of Alex’s character and her ruthless sense of retribution are slowly revealed, you will be completely caught up in, and engaged with the expose of this remarkably determined and dangerous young woman- a woman who admittedly makes Lisbeth Salander look like Mary Poppins. But, and here’s the clever bit, you will be wrongfooted at every turn in your emotional responses to her and this is where the genius of this dark tale lies.

Outside of the sterling characterisation of the truly hypnotic Alex herself, Lemaitre proves he is no slouch at creating other compelling characters, as an integral part of the whole. Police Commandant Camille Verhoeven, who reluctantly discovers himself in charge of this initially mystifying case is a wonderful creation. Struggling with his own mental torment following the relatively recent kidnapping and murder of his wife, Verhoeven, a diminutive man in stature, but with the investigatory tenacity of a small terrier, takes a firm hold on the case, challenging those who seek to interupt his path of detection with a steely determination and a nice line in putdowns. As small as he is physically, his character looms large within the piece and his interplay with his colleagues Louis, intelligent and rich who drapes himself in designer clothing, and Armand, a scruffy individual who has taken cadging to a whole other level, is so plausible and engaging, that as the action pivots between Alex herself and the police investigation, there was to me a perfect mix of drama, poignancy and humour ingrained in Verhoeven and his close cohorts throughout. There are also by turns, some truly hapless and repellent characters who all play a strong part in the novel,  both in conjunction with Alex’s actions, and in those who seek to undermine Verhoeven’s grip on the case, despite the sense of urgency and professionalism he brings to the investigation. Quite simply,  Lemaitre provides a masterclass in characterisation throughout, and you will be appalled and delighted by his protagonists at every turn.

Last, but by no means least, I would like to offer a special mention, to the translator Frank Wynne, who has not only peppered the book with some lovely- as we say in English- turns of phrase (sorry, this is a nod to a character- you’ll understand it when you read the book) including ‘narked’, references to ‘muppets’ and even a ‘noggin’, that injects the book with another level of humour, but has also produced a distinctly fluid translation that, to me, retains the nuances of Lemaitre’s accomplished plot and characterisation, and elevates the enjoyment of this novel even more.

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…

Pierre Lemaitre 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 both the crime novel and the thriller, and have won him the Prix du Premier roman de Cognac 2006, the Prix du Meilleur polar francophone 2009 and the Prix du Polar europeen du Point 2010. ‘Alex’ is his first to be translated into English and is published by MacLehose Press.

(With thanks to Quercus for the ARC)

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