IT’S NOT very often than an author wins significant prizes in the same year for crime and literary fiction, but 2013 was something of an annus mirabilis for French writer Pierre Lemaitre.
Alex, the first of his crime novels to be translated into English and it won the 2013 Crime Writers’ Association ‘International Dagger’ award (he was joint-winner with his French compatriot Fred Vargas).
Meanwhile, last November, his post-WWI epic Au-revoir la haut (Goodbye Up There) won the Prix Goncourt, France’s leading literary prize (that novel will be published in English in 2015).
We meet at Belfast’s Crescent Arts Centre, where Pierre is appearing during the Belfast Books Festival, with Dr Dominique Jeannerod of Queen’s University translating. He’s in Ireland to talk about the publication of his second crime novel, Irene, so it’s apt that the former teacher of literature says that the Prix Goncourt award was recognition of ‘the skill that comes from crime writing, from popular fiction.’
“My first inspiration wasn’t crime fiction or the detective novel,” says Pierre, “it was much more the popular fiction from the 19th century, I believe that if Alexandre Dumas was living in the 21st century he’d be writing thrillers. The origins of the crime genre are located in the form of the adventure novel of the 19th century. .
“The main source of my ideas is the press, the newspapers. Every day they are full of crimes and sensational stories. Basically, the headlines you see on the front of the newspaper provide the first ideas. In recycling these stories for the public, the newspapers are scripting the fabric of their society. So it is like a mirror.”
The author of eight novels in French, Pierre has published five in a series featuring the Parisian police detective, Commandant Camille Verhoeven. Camille is physically distinguished by his lack of height: at four feet eleven inches, Lemaitre writes in Irene, Camille is “a kind of pale, slightly less deformed copy of Toulouse- Lautrec.”
“I was looking for something original,” says Pierre of his hero’s diminutive stature, “and what was really interesting to me was the point of view of the character.
“ Having a very small character meant he sees everything from below. He’s like a child; he sees everything from a very different perspective. And he is angry about being so small; has an angry view of the world.
“I’ve never told anyone this before,” he continues, “but Camille is inspired by my own father, who was also a small man. He died in 1985, but the book is dedicated to him.”
Is the character’s personality also inspired by his father? “No my father was not an angry man, whereas I can be, and frequently am.”
Should we take the hero’s size as a kind of subversive commentary on the traditional hero of the crime and mystery novel, the powerful man who physically dominates his foes? “There is certainly an element of dis-association with the genre, in terms of leaving my own imprint, but there is no desire to renew the genre, or to be any brighter or more clever than other crime writers.”
Pierre Lemaitre is one of the most original crime / mystery writers to emerge in many years. Irenefinds Camille Verhoeven pursuing a serial killer who is murdering his victims according to scenarios found in classic crime titles by authors such as James Ellroy, John D MacDonald and William McIlvanney, although a significant twist in the latter stages of the story forces even the most seasoned fan of the genre to second-guess everything they have read to that point.
Similarly, with Alexsignificant twists force the reader to reappraise what they have read in the novel up to that point, but also their own expectations of the genre.
“ It’s to play with the reader’s own expectations so that the reader himself feels ill-at-ease, says Pierre; that what he originally thought raises a lot of questions about what he has been reading.”
In Irene, as in Alex, the stories centre on women who are much more complex than a straightforward portrayal of a helpless victim would allow. This is in part a hard-headed marketing strategy.
“In France the readers of crime fiction are mostly women,” says Pierre, “so in that case the issue of identification with a female character becomes more important. The target, in terms of readership, is a 30-year-old woman, so that’s why Alex, for example, is 30 years old.”
The focus on character, however, is also central to Pierre Lemaitre’s craft.
“What I really believe as a novelist is that it is always better to start with a character rather than a story,” he says. “The main criticism directed at the crime novel or detective fiction is that the plot is always very good, very satisfying, but the characters are very often very empty — the crime novel doesn’t talk about real people, it talks about the functions of figures.
“I began with creating Alex because good characters create good stories, but good stories don’t always create good characters.”
Nevertheless, with Dumas and Hugo for inspiration, Pierre is conscious that the contemporary crime novel is equal parts entertainment and social commentary.
“That is probably the reason for the success of Alex,” he says (the novel is currently being adapted by Lemaitre for Hollywood producer/director James B Harris).
“It is an action thriller, but at the same time there are a lot of characters at play there, and a lot of commentary on Alex’s tragic situation.”
Ultimately, however, it’s the characters’ stories and not ‘the functions of figures’ that fascinate him.
“It is possible to write theories about crime fiction — in fact it is very easy to theorise about the practice of crime fiction, but not at the same time as when you are practicing as a writer.
“When you write, you write, and when you write theory, you write theory. I’m not here to analyse or comment on the crime novel or society — I’m here to tell stories. I’m a storyteller.”