Translated from the French by Frank Wynne, ‘The Great Swindle’ is something of a departure for Pierre Lemaitre from his crime fiction series of novels featuring detective Camille Verhoeven. Originally titled ‘Au-revoir là-haut’, it won the Prix Goncourt in 2013 which is one of the most prestigious literary prizes in France. In the final days of the First World War, Lieutenant Henri d’Aulnay-Pradelle secretly shoots two of his own men in the back to make other troops believe they were killed by the enemy and provoke a final attack on the Germans, thus establishing his reputation as a war hero. However, Albert Maillard and Édouard Péricourt have witnessed his crime and are gravely injured when Aulnay-Pradelle attempts to kill them too. After the armistice, Édouard assumes the identity of another dead soldier and embarks on an elaborate money-making scheme with Albert.
‘The Great Swindle’ actually tells the story of not one but two post-war scams. After the war, Albert and Édouard concoct an elaborate plan which involves selling war memorials they have no intention of building. Meanwhile, Henri, who has married Édouard’s sister Madeleine, is involved in another scheme to rebury French soldiers in cheaper undersized coffins. Lemaitre explains in the afterword that the coffin swindle is based on a true story while the war memorial scam is entirely fictional.
I enjoyed Lemaitre’s crime thriller novels including Irène and Alex but I approached ‘The Great Swindle’ with some caution partly due to its length and partly due to the Prix Goncourt’s reputation for being rather pretentious. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the narrative style which feels like a suitably modern take on classic French novels, thanks to Wynne’s able translation and Lemaitre’s acknowledged debt to Balzac amongst others. Although ‘The Great Swindle’ is a literary novel which focuses on the social context of the post-war years in Paris, there is a surprising amount of humour even in the darkest parts of the story which reads like a thriller at times. I was gripped from the opening chapter where Albert is buried alive in the trenches following an explosion which causes a shell crater to collapse on him as well as the final scenes which race towards the conclusion where the reader finds out which of the three characters will succeed with their plans.
Anyone who has read the Camille Verhoeven books will know that Lemaitre doesn’t hold back in his graphic descriptions of gory deaths and the early passages about the horrors of war are similarly vivid. Lemaitre’s background in crime fiction serves him well for the suspenseful plotting of the novel, although this occasionally comes at the cost of character development, particularly that of the villainous Henri who lacked any real depth. However, I think ‘The Great Swindle’ would appeal to fans of historical literary novels such as The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters which shares some notable similarities – both novels focus on public disillusionment in the immediate aftermath of the First World War with plots hinging on whether or not the main characters get away with their crimes.
‘The Great Swindle’ is an engaging and original novel. I would be very happy to see it on the longlist for the Man Booker International Prize next year although I suspect it will be up against some stiff competition from elsewhere.
Many thanks to MacLehose / Quercus Books for the review copy of ‘The Great Swindle’ which I received via NetGalley.