‘Camille’ completes Frenchman’s gruesome trilogy

The runaway success of the late Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy unleashed a surge of European crime novels that probably would never have otherwise been translated into English. This wave of works in translation continues unabated.

In 2006 a Frenchman, Pierre Lemaitre, published “Irene,” a police procedural that was the first book in his Commandant Camille Verhoeven trilogy. “Alex,” the second book in that series was actually published here first. That book won the CWA International Dagger Award. “Camille,” the final book in this gruesome trio, has just been issued here.

Lemaitre is a former literature teacher who came to the thriller genre later in life. His protagonist in these books is the Parisian detective Commandant Camille Verhoeven. Camille is a mere 4 feet 11 inches tall, but while he may be short of stature Camille stands tall when it comes to solving crimes. These three books are not for the squeamish. Each one features disturbingly violent acts. Some of these horrors are being visited upon women. His books are fiendishly plotted. If you can stomach the excessive gore, then I cannot recommend them highly enough.

“Camille” begins; it is 10 o’clock in the morning, day 1. Here’s the opening sentence: “An event may be considered decisive when it utterly destabilizes your life.” And a bit further down the page: “To take an example, three blasts from a pump-action shotgun fired at the woman you love.” When you read Lemaitre be prepared for rapid-fire action. The man with the sawed-off shotgun is about to encounter Camille’s girlfriend, Anne Forestier.

The first page closes with these words: “All that remains to be seen is how you will react. This is all that matters.” In the situation that follows Camille reacts rather badly. Anne enters an exclusive Parisian shopping zone, the Galerie Monier. She’s headed to a jewelry store when she encounters some men wearing black balaclavas and brandishing shotguns. She becomes an unlucky witness to their preparations for robbing the jewelry store. One of them brutally assaults her.

The thieves flee with the loot. Some surprising events are occurring elsewhere, as Commandant Verhoeven surveys the crime scene. His girlfriend has sustained life-threatening injuries. This is when the good policeman begins to make troubling choices. He’s quite upset about what has happened to Anne. He feels compelled to track down these robbers who have assaulted her. But this presents a problem; he cannot admit that he actually knows Anne. So he pretends that he doesn’t. As one might guess, this initial deception soon becomes a surging cascade of distortions.

Camille has essentially gone rogue. He lies to his superiors. He conceals vital information. In the meantime Anne is hospitalized. Her assailant is attempting to gain access to her so that he can finish the job. Or so it would seem. That’s the genius of this tale, nothing is as it seems. Lemaitre keeps shifting us over to the standpoint of the killer while he is lurking: “I blend in, I listen.”

When the identity of the killer is revealed you will surely fall right out of your chair. “Camille” is beyond brilliant.

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Vick Mickunas of Yellow Springs interviews authors every Saturday at 7 a.m. and on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. on WYSO-FM (91.3). For more information, visit www.wyso.org/programs/book-nook. Contact him at vick@vickmickunas.com.