commissaire inspector dottore

a bibliography of detective-inspector novels

pierre lemaitre

the camille verhœven series

Travail soigné. Paris: Éditions du Masque, 2006.
 ∴  Irène. Translated by Anders Juel Michelsen. København: Lindhardt og Ringhof, 2014.
 ∴  Irène. Translated by Frank Wynne. New York: MacLehose, 2014.
 ∴  Irène. Translated by Stefania Ricciardi. Milano: Mondadori, 2015.
 ∴  Koronkowa robota. Translated by Joanna Polachowska. Warszawa: Muza, 2015.
 ∴  Irène. Translated by Friðrik Rafnsson. Reykjavík: JPV, 2016.
 ∴  Irène. Translated by Juan Carlos Durán Romero. Barcelona: Alfaguara, 2016.

Alex. Paris: Albin Michel, 2011. Reprinted 2016.
 ∴  Alex. Translated by Stefano Viviani. Milano: Mondadori, 2011.
 ∴  Ich will dich sterben sehen. Translated by Gaby Wurster. Berlin: Ullstein, 2012.
 ∴  Alex. Translated by Frank Wynne. New York: Maclehose, 2013.
 ∴  Alex. Translated by Joanna Polachowska. Warszawa: Muza, 2013.
 ∴  Alex. Translated by Artur Jordà. Barcelona: Grijalbo, 2013.
 ∴  Alex. Translated by Elisabeth Ellekjær. København: Lindhardt og Ringhof, 2014.
 ∴  Alex. Translated by Friðdrik Rafnsson. Reykjavík: JPV, 2014.

Sacrifices. Paris: Albin Michel, 2012.
 ∴  Ofiara. Translated by Joanna Polachowska. Warszawa: Muza, 2014.
 ∴  Camille. Translated by Frank Wynne. London: MacLehose, 2015.
 ∴  Camille. Translated by Karsten Nielsen. København: Lindhardt og Ringhof, 2015.
 ∴  Camille. Translated by Vittoria Vassallo. Milano: Mondadori, 2015.
 ∴  Camille. Translated by Juan Carlos Durán Romero. Barcelona: Alfaguara, 2016.
 ∴  Camille. Translated by Friðrik Rafnsson. Reykjavík: JPV, 2017.
 ∴  Opfer. Translated by Tobias Scheffel. Stuttgart: Tropen, 2018.

Commandant Camille Verhœven is an unconventional detective-inspector, right down to his size (145 cm tall, about 4'9"). Somehow I can't believe that the Paris police would accept someone that short. Believability is quite beside the point in Pierre Lemaitre's Travail soigné, however. The novel is a language game, intertextual. It's also a shock-horror thriller of extreme violence, and a love story, and has struck an odd note that's captivated readers in France and several other European countries, though Lemaitre has been slower to become a smash hit in the US.

Spoilers await below, but if you read the novel in any language other than the original French, the title is a major spoiler. The English, Danish, Italian, and Icelandic translations are all titled Irène, after Verhœven's wife. She is an important but somewhat tangential presence in the first 3/4 of the novel, so seeing her name in the title leads one to believe that she will become crucial in the last quarter.

So she does, and in a way that the reader sees coming long before the top detectives among the characters. Verhœven is on the track of a serial killer who does vicious things to women. To draw out the fiend, he sends him personal ads, signed with his initials and his home address. At home is his pregnant wife. Can you put those pieces together? "C'est imprévisible, Camille," his old friend Commissaire Le Guen assures him (341), but if it was so unforeseeable, how come I foresaw it 150 pages earlier?

To solve the mysteries in Travail soigné, you have to be a reader of detective fiction. "Je suis un lecteur," a character tells Verhœven at one point; "c'est mon métier [I'm a reader; it's my trade]" (279). The novel takes one track, as I noted, toward a very predictable twist, the endangerment of the central detective's family. But at the same time, on a meta-level, Travail soigné takes a meta-twist I did not see coming, but which is perfectly organic. As the narrative proceeds, we become slowly aware that we are reading not just fiction but a text, a text produced by one of the characters in the novel itself.

Early on, even a casual fan of crime fiction realizes that the murders in Travail soigné are meta-murders (though "real" enough, at some level, for their victims). They are too reminiscent of famous fictional crimes – I really did tip to both the Black Dahlia and American Psycho as models for the initial murders, but not in the sense that I thought the resemblances were a key to their solution. As a character notes in passing somewhere in Travail soigné, there are only so many ways to kill somebody. Every murderous MO is going to recall some other one, fictional or real. (And with the Dahlia, we have a case of art imitating art imitating life – and I am probably omitting a layer or two there, from the perspective of the characters in Lemaitre's novel.) Travail soigné suggests the principle that every murder, particularly in a culture saturated with fictional murders, is a staged scene, an imitation of other deaths, or of their imitations.

"Hommage à la littérature, ce livre n'existerait pas sans elle [An homage to literature, this book wouldn't exist without it]," says Lemaitre of his own novel (409). The artificiality of the novel is one of its strongest pleasures, but it is also troublesome. The violence in Travail soigné is extreme, its depictions of horror and sadism rampant, its ending harrowing and crushing. To the extent that we derive playful pleasure from such a novel, are we good people (even if we prove good readers)?

The novel may obliquely criticize its own fans for refining their tastes in crime fiction to the point where they're both jaded and morally rootless. It's a truism of murder mysteries that readers long to see the killer apprehended and justice restored – maybe not always punished (that's for the legal or the prison thriller), but known and processed and dealt with in his or her evil. But Travail soigné suggests that the reader (and the reader as aspiring writer) of Krimis is the moral threat to an ordered society. If your jouissance comes from consuming images of murder, can you even be said to be committed to a safe society?

Well, it's just a story, and by boxing itself into a kind of hall-of-mirrors, mise en abyme construction where all its references seem to be internal and self-regarding, Travail soigné isolates itself somewhat from socially-engaged concerns. Meanwhile, it's a prodigiously clever novel, and I mean that without irony: clever, not "too clever for its own good." The novel continually reminds readers that they're not escaping into an alternate reality, but sitting somewhere – like the characters they're reading about – holding a text and reading it.

Verhœven and his team try to solve the case by reading – reports and interview protocols, of course, but also novels, lots of them. (They even make spreadsheets of fictional crime statistics.) We get to know Camille Verhœven by following his reading process:

Une longue habitude des rapports, comptes rendus et procès-verbaux de toutes sortes lui avait appris à naviguer rapidement dans les dossiers volumineux.

[Long acquaintance with reports, minutes, and transcripts of all kinds had taught him to steer quickly through thick files.] (63)
Not unlike the reader who has been through so many Krimis that he or she can read diagonally down the page while slotting all the characters and clues into a mental template.

Camille and Irène bond over reading polars (or so the polar-writing, less-than-reliable narrator presents things, 104). At one point, Verhœven is dizzied by the sheer number of murders represented in all the crime novels in the database he's using to track down the killer (who, remember, is writing the scene of Verhœven doing so):

Camille imagina le nombre de morts que devaient représenter tous les livres présents dans la librairie …

[Camille imagined how many murders must be described in all the books in that bookstore …] (191)
At one point, Verhœven calls on an academic expert in crime fiction and asks him for a canon, a list of books in the genre that everyone would call classics, or at least too important to miss (a fine distinction sometimes). "Un petite bibliothèque idéale," he calls the result (231), "a little ideal library," recalling Pierre Bayard's notion of virtual and ideal libraries of classics that stand as a screen between us and the real books in the world.

It's often said that people read detective novels so that they can see justice done and the world re-righted. The narrator of Travail soigné, imagining a fictional letter that he himself, as a character, sends to Verhœven, claims instead that

Le succés invraisemblable de la littérature policière montre, à la évidence, à quel point le monde a besoin de mort.

[The unlikely success of detective novels shows, by all indications, how much the world needs death.] (309)