‘Irène’ and ‘Alex’ are the first two books in Pierre Lemaitre’s series of crime novels set in Paris and featuring Commandant Camille Verhoeven. ‘Irène’ was the first novel in the series originally published in France in 2006 but was the second to be translated into English following the success of its sequel ‘Alex’ which won the CWA International Dagger for best translated crime novel of the year in 2013.
The Irène of the title of the first book is Camille’s wife who is pregnant with their first child. While she doesn’t actually play a central role in the majority of the story, she is an important character in the final hundred pages or so. Camille is working on a case where a number of murders have been linked to those in famous works of crime fiction and the killer is soon dubbed “The Novelist” by the press. To give you some idea of how gruesome they are, homages to ‘American Psycho’ by Bret Easton Ellis, ‘The Black Dahlia’ by James Ellroy and ‘Laidlaw’ by William McIlvanney are all featured.
The sequel ‘Alex’ is just as gory as ‘Irène’. The title character has been kidnapped and is attempting to escape from an unknown location. Meanwhile, with just one eyewitness report as evidence, Camille is trying to solve the mystery of who Alex is, who kidnapped her and where she is being held. However, it emerges that Alex is no ordinary victim and her kidnapping is just the beginning of a series of twists and turns.
With some series, it doesn’t particularly matter which order you read the books in but wherever possible, I like to start from the beginning and I’m particularly glad I did with this series. I can see why ‘Alex’ was published first as it is the novel with the stronger concept out of the two and has bigger twists. I can also see how it would work well as a stand-alone book. However, those who read it first will know exactly what happened to Irène as the details of the case are outlined in the opening chapters of the second book and referred to throughout. I think ‘Irène’ would still be an enjoyable read for those who have already read ‘Alex’ but reading the books in the wrong order will kill some of the suspense somewhat. Interestingly, ‘Alex’ is also being adapted for cinema and if it’s successful, I wonder if the series will also be filmed in the wrong order too?
Series order aside, both novels are very much fast-paced, plot-driven thrillers. Consequently, there is generally less focus on character development but the diminutive and determined Camille is still a highly engaging lead and Alex is very intriguing. Lemaitre sustains a high level of tension throughout and the gory violence doesn’t really let up either – these books are not for the faint-hearted!
If you are new to Lemaitre’s work, I strongly suggest reading ‘Irène’ before ‘Alex’. The third book in the series ‘Camille’ is due to be published next year and Lemaitre has also written three stand-alone novels, the most recent of which ‘Au revoir là-haut’ won the prestigious Prix Goncourt last year. I’m looking forward to reading more of his work – preferably in chronological order, of course.