Pierre Lemaitre, acknowledged master of #FrenchNoir, is the Prix Goncourt-winning French novelist and screenwriter behind the Paris Crime Files a.k.a. Verhœven series. He is brought to English-language readers by the publisher behind Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbø. So much for having a shrewd eye for genuinely original storytelling and talent-spotting big hitters from foreign climes, not just once but again and again and again . . . chapeau!
Rosy & John, translated by word wizard Frank Wynne, is published today. It is the fourth and last book in the Verhœven series. The opening description of an eight year old boy seeing “the body of his father soar into the air as though a giant hand has punched him in the solar plexus” when a bomb explodes in a Paris street, evoking the November 2015 Paris attacks, is both globally apocalyptic and highly personal.
Jean (John) Garnier is unemployed and middle-aged; his narcissistic mother with whom he has a weirdly intense relationship is in prison. He has planted seven First World War mortar shells in locations around the country; one in a kindergarten. The first one goes off without anyone being killed. Small super-sleuth, Camille Verhœven, may be just “four feet eleven of towering rage” but he is big on understanding twisted mentalities. A frustrated artist, his sketching is a form of intellectual and emotional release. “Camille’s searingly honest portraits reveal a rare talent. He often claims his drawings are more intelligent than he is.”
Why loser Garnier has flipped into spreading terror is a puzzle that must be solved fast so that the other six bombs can be found, and a national incident stopped. Why he wants to be flown to Australia with €4 million and his mother Rose (Rosy) who killed his girlfriend, is the more complex riddle to be solved. Rosy & John is a cleverly-plotted, hardcore head-fuck with a twist, albeit less grisly than the other thrillers in the series. Lemaitre’s respect for the great Noir writers from Simenon to Pascal Garnier; Chandler to Ellroy, is clear.
“Such is the nature of the human animal: give them an accident and people immediately hang out of their windows. As long as there’s a flashing police light or a smear of blood, there will be a rubbernecker there to pry . . . Disneyland has nothing on this.”
Lemaitre’s layered social detail builds a scenic case-file of people and place. Louis – Verhœven’s “slim, elegant, delicate” intelligent sidekick from a different milieu – may have “all the trappings of the filthy rich” but is in fact a fine young radical acting in perfect counterpoint to his patron. Lemaitre shows the seedy underbelly of capitalism, bleak gilet-jaune neighbourhoods, and holds up a mirror to French society.
“To know a society, know its crime”
Domestic drama becomes enmeshed with insane reactions rooted in abusive, traumatic family pasts. Verhœven’s initially happy personal life ends up being decimated. Irene is a particularly disturbing and suspenseful read with intricate plotting and pitch-perfect pacing. The nightmarish opening description of the gruesome, ritualistic murder of two young whores in a chic warehouse apartment in a desolate urban wasteland has a grim point to it. What is suppressed cannot be repressed: we may not be aware of what lies in the unconscious, but its contents can affect behaviour in many different ways.
Irene is a cleverly executed homage to the giants of Noir: each killing recreates a murder from a classic crime novel. The tone is laconic though there is an underlying humanity and concern for the forgotten and impoverished. Writing about misogyny and violence is a way to explore what it means, where it comes from, and asks the question what can we do to prevent it?
Alex, a pretty young woman, is kidnapped by a man in a white van, taken to a deserted warehouse, commanded to strip naked, and bundled into a slatted wooden cage suspended from the ceiling with a rope. A fillette, it is a “cage that makes it impossible to stand or sit . . . an instrument of torture created under Louis XI for the bishop of Verdun . . . the joints fuse, the muscles atrophy . . . and it drives the victim insane.” Trapped, she is a battered object, reduced to a bloodied thing. But do he and she have a history? Had they been engaged in a fatal pas de deux? Rats are released to crawl all over her wooden prison while her abuser vanishes, ostensibly leaving her to die. Fillette also means little girl: therein lies the key to understanding.
Historically women from impoverished backgrounds have had their humanity denied. But they are more than victims; they are real and fully-rounded human beings.
“They say men who lose women always lose them in the same way”
Camille is perhaps the bleakest of the lot. An armed robbery in an arcade at the lower end of the Champs Elysées goes very wrong and Verhœven’s girlfriend, Anne is caught up in the violence. He is desperate to protect her and will do all he can to not lose her, as he lost his wife. She ends up in hospital, an unfortunate victim in the wrong place at the wrong time – or so it seems.
Lemaitre’s desperate, dispossessed perpetrators are monsters in disguise living in our communities, often behind an ordinary façade. They have compelling qualities, as do most normal people. And as in the other titles of the series, not all his perpetrators of violent crime are male. Lemaitre shows how the very real violence done to women has consequences. The monsters in our society say a lot about us.
An eye for an eye: the graphic descriptions of psychotic, amnesiac Sophie’s murderous binge that open standalone novel, Blood Wedding, ultimately mirror the brutality she experienced as a young woman at the hands of her half-brother. A contemporary riff on gaslighting, the relentless psychological abuse at its heart makes Blood Wedding perhaps the most disturbing read of all. Lemaitre expertly flips the narrative on its head so that what you believed at the beginning is something else entirely and you begin to feel as though you are also going mad.
Ageing. Low pay. No pay. Then what?
Inhuman Resources is the perfect post-pandemic, schadenfreude read. How many skilled fifty somethings now find themselves in a tight spot just like Lemaitre’s protagonist, Alain Delambre? A former HR executive, he is demoralised and depressed at being offered occasional menial, badly paid jobs with long stretches of unemployment in between. Delambre is desperate and is up for everything and anything – including getting hired by a big company to execute a role-playing game that involves hostage-taking. In true Lemaitre style, the twist in the tale leads to a bloodbath.
Lemaitre’s #FrenchNoir #crimereads apart, he is a skillful shapeshifting wordsmith. MacLehose Press also publish his Goncourt winning-novel, The Great Swindle, the first of three volumes of a panoramic saga exploring French society between the wars through the fate of various families. It is perfect for fans of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 (Novecento) or more recently, the hit series, A French Village.
His tough, disturbed characters crushed by events and pushed to the extremes are reminiscent of certain individuals in the unjustly neglected classic by Marcel Aymé, The Street Without a Name, set in the immigrant Parisian banlieue of the 1930s. Its themes of xenophobia, poverty, alcoholism, getting old and going mad with despair are as relevant today as ever.
@PLemaitreAuteur is clearly a great humanist, not only a superb storyteller. To combine writing for the cinema with writing blockbuster novels is not so easily done: it is a major talent; a gilded winning combination.
The publication by Albin Michel in May this year of Lemaitre’s first novel, Le Serpent majuscule, a hitherto unpublished thriller written in 1985, with an elderly former resistance fighter turned hitwoman as its heroine, marks his farewell to Noir as he apparently turns to focus on more literary projects.
Strong plots, a sharp eye, a knack for getting under the skin of people and figuring out what makes them tick, underpinned by a visceral desire to dig below the surface of violence – why it happens, how we survive – will go on giving pleasure to his readers for years to come.
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