Top positive review
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Ceci n'est pas une pipe
on 2 June 2014
Most Anglophone reviewers of Irene are going to be coming to this having read Alex. That's a pity.
In French, Irene was published first. Alex was the sequel. The strength of Alex was in plunging straight into the action without the need to introduce the detective and those around him. It also created a detective with a backstory that was described briefly. In Alex, we find that introduction to a detective we already know, and the backstory that we already know is what is supposed to drive the suspense in Irene.
In truth, Alex is a better book and does shine when read first, but that is at the expense of getting the most out of Irene which is, on its own, still pretty good.
Pierre Le Maitre is an excellent writer who has benefitted from a wonderful translator. The novel appears to be a standard police procedural centered around a warped but intelligent serial killer who plays games with the investigating team. This isn't what happens in real life and it does feel a bit pedestrian. Especially coming on from the brilliant Alex, it seems ordinary. Actually it isn't - it is very clever indeed. But by the time the reader realises this in the last fifth of the text, there is a fair chance that some of the readers will have either been lost or be skimming. Their loss.
Le Maitre creates a real, three dimensional world. Yes, it's Paris and it still feels authentic without being romantic. It's a world more of Gitanes and brandy than the Eiffel Tower and Sacre Couer. But we do still have Camille's love of painting and a fair dose of literature to remind us we are in a city of art and learning.
It would be unfair to reveal the trick, but it is a good one. When it happens, it's probably best to sit back in amazement than probe too deeply.
I recommend Irene as a work of literary fiction, not just as a detective fiction. Pierre Le Maitre is real talent and I hope we can see more of his works coming into English translation in the near future.