Not one for the faint-hearted

French novelist and screenwriter Pierre Lemaitre’s Alex opens with the brutal kidnapping of a 30-year-old woman as she is walking home after dinner on a mild Paris evening.

The abductor visits unspeakable violence on his victim. From here on, unremitting, often stomach-churning violence will stalk the pages of this riveting book.

Commandant Camille Verhoeven – four feet and eleven inches tall, tough talking, resolute, arrogant, brilliant, haunted by his past and as memorable a creation as Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus – takes over the case.

But Alex is not just another whodunit. Without playing spoiler, it is possible to offer the following: within the first third of the novel, the kidnapper has been traced, and is then dead; by the time we reach halfway, the victim – the Alex of the title – has escaped; and well before the end, she is dead.

It is a magnificent feat that the novel – dark, gritty, psychologically insightful – turns on these incidents, but is much more than a sum of their parts. We find out bit by bit that Alex isn’t quite the innocent victim that the novel’s opening had set her up to be. By the time we finish it, we realise that she is a victim, twice and thrice over, and in different ways, and herself has much to atone for.

This is a masterclass in moral ambiguity. We find it hard to condone the actions of either Alex or her kidnapper. And yet, we find it just as hard to judge them in any straightforward manner.

Lemaitre is an award-winning writer in France. You can see his website here. This is first book to be translated into English. I can’t wait for the next one.

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