How easy is it to reinvigorate a shop-worn formula? One way is to shoot each familiar effect full of adrenalin. The other is to inject subtly innovative elements into the detail, subverting the clichés. Alex by Pierre Lemaitre is a book that has it both ways, and succeeds in having its cake and eating it.
Yes, we've had the kidnapping of a young woman before (Hans Koppel's bleak She's Never Coming Back and Jussi Adler-Olsen's Mercy, to name but two), but the victimised woman here is very different from her predecessors. Although the details of her kidnapping and incarceration are familiar – as is the desperate police search to find her – Lemaitre has something very surprising up his sleeve. But is this enough to explain the hype this book has engendered?
Alex is an intriguing young woman who is introduced to us in a state of flux. She appears to be constantly attempting to change her identity – and her appearance – for reasons that are obscure, but seem more playful than calculated. After a flirtation with a man in a restaurant, she is assaulted and bundled into a white van where she undergoes a savage beating.
The scenes of the kidnapping are handled with disturbing force by the writer. However, the effect of these scenes is not dispiriting but relentlessly gripping. The man tasked with Alex's rescue is Commandant Camille Verhoerven, and we might be forgiven for thinking, "Here we go again: tormented copper, personal tragedy." This detective, however, is something new. Verhoerven is Napoleon-sized and congenitally stunted. Lemaitre skilfully communicates the thoughts of a man driven to prove himself bigger than those around him.
It is quickly apparent that Lemaitre is worthy of all the fuss. In Frank Wynne's sympathetic translation, various subtle variations of the crime novel are handled with aplomb, such as an examination of the nature of identity (the enigmatic Alex). And Alex herself turns out to be the author's ace-in-the-hole. 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.