Alex, a good looking young lady, observes that a man is following her. She is not sure why. One night after dinner at a restaurant she walks down the road and the man who has been following her assaults her and pushes her into a van and drives off. One person witnesses the kidnapping reports to the police. Meanwhile Alex is taken to what looks like an isolated and abandoned factory. The kidnapper puts Alex into a wooden cage, hoists it up and tells that he wants to see Alex die slowly.
Meanwhile the police arrive at the scene of kidnapping but there is very little that they can learn. They have no clue about both the victim and the kidnapper. Camille Verhoeven reluctantly takes charge of the case. The twists and turns in the case keep both Commandant Verhoevan and the readers engaged.
The novel, which has three parts, is cleverly plotted in such a fashion that each part turns the conclusions of the earlier part on its head. Each part in itself is interesting and self contained with the interest of the reader kept high by the goings-on. The slow unraveling of the plot is riveting though the third part is on expected lines for a serious crime novel reader.
Lemaitre builds this novel on two pillars: one of suspense and the other on the depiction of cruelty. Modern crime novels seem to demand more and more cruelty probably as a result of man’s cruelty being exposed in detail by media. Human cruelty has existed since ages but the modern age in which information spreads faster than wildfire has exposed more of it. When shocking events happen in real life and become news which is viewed by millions, writers have to find even more bizarre ways of shocking their readers. Lemaitre does that by writing in detail about the torture of Alex, her incarceration, her fight for her life. He also provides minute revolting details about each of the murder that happens in the novel. The back story is shocking and repulsive in equal measure. The whole idea seems to shock the reader by providing as much close up detail as possible so that the reader overcomes the initial shock and repulsion and turns into a voyeur. It is almost like watching one of those action movies where they routinely show the throat of a person being cut in closeup shots. Think ‘Raid Redemption’
Other than depicting the gruesome violence the novel also has another theme which is a favorite amongst crime authors: poetic justice. When the severity of the crime is well publicized in the modern world, people are at a loss to know how such crimes should be punished. Given that many countries have banned capital punishment the response to repulsive crimes seems inadequate to many people. The crime authors invent their own novel ways to punish the guilty and many a times it is lapped up by the readers. As Command Verhoevan’s boss tells him towards the end, “It is justice which is important, not truth”.
The pace is kept uniform throughout with the action alternating between the crime and the police activities. The novel can be classified more as a crime novel that a detective novel for it highlights the crime more than its deduction. Many a times police are in luck as they get information from unknown sources. The build up to the crime and the execution of the crime are told in great detail. The best part as far as detailing the police methods is concerned happens when the police interrogate Alex’s mother and brother. The claustrophobic nature of the interrogation, the energy sapping method employed by the police and their sheer determination to get at the root of the crime are interestingly narrated. It is in this segment that the author almost touches the quality of Simenon.
The main detective involved Commandant Verhoevan is an interesting character. The author makes him a dwarf. He is less than 5 ft and he is angry about that fact. The fact that he is short tempered gives a human touch to his character. The character is not developed in the lines of Sherlock Holmes in the sense of brilliant deduction. He is developed more in the lines of a normal policeman who gets the job done based on instinct, hard work and some unexpected luck.
Overall ‘Alex’ is an interesting read if you are not too squeamish reading about detailed violence.