This is the second post in an occasional series (it was supposed to be monthly, but… well, you know… life, etc.) in which I write about crime novels that I have not simply enjoyed, but also learned from and been influenced by. This installment features French ‘literary’ thriller Alex.
Alex is actually part 2 of a trilogy, but its success meant that it was translated into English before the first book. It can be read as a standalone. I hear part one (Irene) is great, though, so you could start with that if you wanted to…
Anyway, what did I learn from ‘Alex’?
Well, first up, let’s talk about that term, ‘literary’ thriller. What does it mean? I could write a very long blog post just about that. But I’ll try and sum it up in one paragraph.
Some people make a division between literary fiction and genre fiction, and thrillers are one of those genres. Literary fiction is usually more focused on character and language, while thrillers are more about plot. In some literary fiction, it feels like nothing is happening, while in some thrillers, the characters are a little flat and the prose is ‘workmanlike’, but a hell of a lot happens. In reality, though, many books are somewhere in the middle. Silence of The Lambs is beautifully written and has some great characters, including one of the most memorable of all time, for example. Which brings me to Alex.
In some respects, Alex is a very conventional crime novel. We have a detective with a tragedy in his past trying to solve a crime in the present. The detective has a distinctive quirk – he is very short – and he is also an investigative genius. We have a kidnapping, clues, red herrings, interviews, all that stuff. And yet, as a whole, the book is anything but conventional. It starts off as a hostage thriller, then morphs into something completely different. I believe great books are those that combine three things: a surprising, entertaining story; compelling, well-drawn characters; and distinctive, effective writing. Alex certainly has the first two covered. There is simply no way that, after the first couple of chapters, you will have any idea how the story is going to progress and eventually end. The book also features chracters who are complicated and human. And the reason it probably gets that ‘literary’ tag is the way it’s written.
I read a pretty aggressive one star review of Alex on a well known book reviewing site (clue: the first part of the name is the opposite of bad, the second is what you do with a book. And there’s an ‘s’ on the end). The reviewer’s issues with the book were numerous, but many of them were concerned with the fact that Lemaitre breaks a lot of the ‘rules’ that are drummed into novice writers: don’t use the passive voice; don’t spend too much time in the characters’ heads; don’t switch POV mid-scene; don’t be too wordy, especially in a thriller; and for God’s sake, avoid TELLING.
Now, I can see why the reviewer said these things. But unfortunately, if you want to not simply be a competent writer, but a great one, you are going to have to break some rules. Well, actually there are no cast iron rules. You can use the passive voice, for example, but you need to understand when it is or isn’t effective. And good et riding is about knowing when to show and when to tell.
If you read Alex, you will probably notice that it’s quite different from some more traditional thrillers. They often feel ‘cinematic’ because they describe a lot of physical action, rather than thoughts and opinions. In fact, this applies to the first chapter of my novel, PsychoAnalysis, which is pretty action packed. Sure, we get a bit of internal monologue here and there, but there aren’t long paragraphs dealing with the characters’ thoughts. If you want to thrill the reader, things need to happen.
But an entire book like that is effectively a screenplay, and one that doesn’t benefit from all the things you can do with images and sounds on film. In a novel, the writer has the ability to put the reader in the characters’ heads. But he also has the ability to talk directly to the reader. (Yes, you can do that with a voiceover in a film, but voiceovers can be a bit clunky because they’re so obviously seperate from the images and dialogue of the film. This isn’t the case for words on a page.)
What stands out about Alex is Lemaitre’s voice. This is a concept that can cause headaches for novice writers. They write stories with twists and turns, they do a lot of showing, rather than telling. They write eventful scenes and the writing is grammatically correct. And yet the feedback they get is that something is missing. Perhaps this quality people often talk about: voice. What does it mean? Well consider the opening sentences from a couple of novels that I’ve plucked from the bookshelf in the holiday apartment I’m staying in:
Eight days ago my life was an up and down affair. Some of it good. Some of it not so good. Most of it uneventful.
As no lady or gentleman, with any claims to polite breeding, can possibly sympathise with the Chuzzlewit Family without being first assured of the extreme antiquity of the race, it is a great satisfaction to know that it undoubtedly descended in a direct line from Adam and Eve; and was, in the very earliest times, closely connected with the agricultural interest.
Lee Child and Charles Dickens, from Personal and Martin Chuzzlewit. It’s obvious that those passages were written by two different writers, isn’t it? Two different voices. Distinctive voices.
Here are two passages from Alex:
Camille Vehoeven never shouts. Or very rarely. He is a man of authority. He may be short, bald and scrwany, but this is something that everyone knows. Camille is a razor blade.
Kidnapping is a singular crime: unlike murder, the victim is not present; you have to imagine them.
It took me a while to unlock what makes Lemaitre’s writing voice distinctive. Then I noticed that he uses lots of short declarative sentences like those above. “He is a man of authority… Camille is a razor blade…Kidnapping is a singular crime.”
Ok, there’s a bit of figurative language, like the use of razor blade, but that isn’t particularly original. The key thing is that Lemaitre writes with authority. The narrator tells you things, he expresses opinions.
If you read books on a Kindle, you can see the sentences that other readers of a book have underlined. And in my experience, there are two types of sentences that are underlined more than others: descriptions that use figurative language, and declarative sentences that contain an opinion. Readers respond to metaphors that describe something familiar in a new way like Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” But they also respond to more straightforward statements like the first line of Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Now, I’m not saying that everyone needs to write like this. I’m simply describing some of the characteristics of Lemaitre’s voice, some of the things that make his writing stand out. And that quality of standing out is vital – it’s one of the things that elevates writers from novice to pro.
Omniscient narration (like Dickens uses above) has become unfashionable – it is much more common for stories, especially thrillers, to be told in the first person or close third person, where we only have access to the thoughts of the POV character. These points of view bring the reader closer to the characters and help create, for example, a real sense of peril when the characters are in danger. Now, a first person narrator can express opinions freely, but in close third POV, declarative sentences like those quoted above raise the question of who is having that thought. Camille Verhoeven is not thinking “Camille is a razor blade.” That comes from the narrator. We’re not in Camille’s head, someone else is describing him.
So what’s better, telling the story from the precise point of view of the characters, or the point of view of a narrator who is one step removed from the characters and therefore creates a degree of distance from those characters? There is of course no right answer. And you don’t actually have to choose. You can start a scene from a distance and then get closer. But Lemaitre doesn’t do that. He maintains some distance all the way through. And yes, for me, it made the story a little less pulse-quickening. However, Alex is a book that I almost enjoyed more after I’d finished it compared with when I read it. There was a depth to it that meant it lingered in my mind for a long time.
At the moment, people seem to love stories featuring an unreliable narrator. Why? Well, perhaps it’s because all humans are unreliable narrators. When we tell a story, it is coloured by our perception and our experience. A story told in close third person POV may lack some of the human quirks that we’re used to when interacting with other people. One of the biggest compliments anyone ever paid me was that reading one of my scenes was like sitting next to somebody in a bar while they told a story. That, for me, is the pinnacle of writing achievement: when my words jump off the page and speak to somebody as though they were actually being spoken by another human being. And yes, sometimes you want the narrator to get out of the way so that you can experience things from the perspective of the characters. But there will also be occassions where it might be more effective for the narrator to talk to the reader, to tell them things, to express their views. Because, as we all know, a part of being human is having an opinion, isn’t it?