Commercialised Suffering Is Easy: Lemaitre’s Irene

Irène is crass, coarse, and shallow.

Pierre Lemaitre’s novel is like the work of Jo Nesbø, in this way. Preoccupied with torture and awfulness, reluctant to engage with humanity or emotion beyond the ways that happiness can be revoked or twisted; used to make a person miserable; and underbaked as progressing narratives, these author, in my opinion, write lazy books undeserving of their popularity and acclaim.

Both Nesbø and Lemaitre describe their scenes of pain and carnage in unexpressive terms (perhaps it’s correct to allow that, in my experience, their translators do). A head will be cut off and propped on something, a head will be nailed to the wall. No emotional connection to the head will be suggested, unless it is the relative of somebody present. In this case, we will hear “it was the head of x” or “X’s head was cut off and propped on something.” Projection of the motivation behind the egregious damage done to a body is not bothered with, either by those characters who look at it, or by the narrative voice; the wounds and death are revealed to the reader in no context beyond the physically factual. Lemaitre uses a comparison to Goya, as his Commandant Camille Verhoeven views an introductory murder scene. Lemaitre says, “he was reminded of Goya’s painting,” and Camille remembers “the terrifying face, the bulging eyes, the crimson mouth, the utter madness.” You see, a strange and alarming scene of gore is much like another strange and alarming scene of gore.

Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son
The painting Saturn, by the Spanish artist Goya.

So what? So it’s strange, alarming, and gory. The fact of the horror — that is what Lemaitre (and Nesbø) supposes we are here for. Comparison is intended to concentrate the horror but no more can be evoked by repetition of status (“horror is horrifying”). We will find ourselves deadened if we keep poking the same tired nerve.

From the beginning, Irène is an exercise in detached cruelty. To be fair to the novel as art, it must be noted that the book is a commercial object, a product containing a novel; the blurb, which contains indications that make it plain Camille will be losing his wife, is read before the opening chapter in which he thinks to himself about his troubled childhood; the novel is experienced through blurb-tinted glasses, which cause the prospective loss of his wife to sharpen the focus on the suffering of his youth. The novel begins he survived all this and found happiness. The discerning book buyer knows, having read the blurb, that this is a temporary and dwindling respite. The book itself is called Irène, which the reader is soon told is the name of the wife of the protagonist. The protagonist works with crime and criminals, violence and shame and filth. Perhaps without blurb and title, with only the text of the novel, the pure manuscript and no meta-novelistic clues, I would have not been so sighingly certain that Camille was being set up for a fall.

(But this was never intended to be a pure manuscript or a non-commercial endeavour of art.)

Camille thinks of how he loved and hated his mother, how he grew accustomed to the presence of loss during her battle with cancer, and how following her death he knew he would never again find love, understanding, or security. He thinks of how to his surprise he did, with Irène. Camille is short, bald, and forty, which we are given to understand are damning negatives. In these opening thoughts Camille’s father is represented by meek silence and an emasculating adoration for his (tall) (dead) wife. Camille thinks of how much he loves his own wife Irène, and how glad he is to have found her against life’s cruel odds. He interrogates a witness while he thinks these thoughts, comparing his work life to his home life, showing us he has both well in hand, despite nature’s resentful setbacks. All any of this really means is that this Irène, somebody wonderful and unlikely enough to grant the shrunken and hideous (but still innately masculine, artistic, authoritative and clever) goblin Camille her redeeming love, is going to die, and Camille will be so sad. Women are effectively hot water bottles for the soul who can also cook, you see, and whose existence reflects upon men more than holds any of its own weight.

Naturally she is beautiful. Beautiful Irène.

Our entrance to the novel is through a misogynist’s gateway, but even if it weren’t — if Camille missed his father dreadfully, and if his treasured lover were a man too — the plain juxtaposition of he was sad with now he is happy beneath the rock-solid surety of he will be sad again has all the subtlety of a bird flipped to the face. Damocles! Come fetch back your sword. Camille is going to try to solve murders and for his trouble, he will lose his prize. Can a nice guy ever win?

Do you expect to hear from Irène, or learn of Irène’s pain? No… I don’t think that you do. Of course, you are right.

I called the novel crass, coarse, and shallow. Divide the three words between the three sins Irène commits, or just enjoy the repetition of triangular damnation. The book situates itself in misery, it revels in atrocity, and- the final criticism. It copies. It copies poorly.

The conceit of this book is that, to gain fame, one may use the social popularity of murder. The killer copies crimes, recreates crime scenes, from famous and acclaimed novels. He does this because he wants to become a best-selling crime novelist. He supposes that upon being caught after some interesting crimes, he would be convicted, and his novel would gain infamy. He communicates with Camille and creates an image of himself that is “charged with a mission” because the public wants mad killers with gimmicks. Why, it can’t be denied! You bought the book, didn’t you?

“The unparallelled success of crime fiction clearly demonstrates the visceral need people have for death. […] Mankind seeks images of death because he desires death.” says the killer. A dull, dull man indeed.

So Lemaitre writes descriptions of crime scenes that already exist via other authors’ descriptions, benefits from the reader’s eagerness to say “yes, I recognise this book, I too am aware of novels!” and for his part provides fantasies of less than a page in length regarding how a man may abduct women (for example, ask for directions and then chloroform her: edifying) with a mind to murdering her later. These women matter so little to Irène that even the deepest generosity shown by the creators of their originators, such as Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö in their breakthrough Roseanna, cannot keep Lemaitre’s copycat victims from gendered irrelevancy and diegetic suppression. The cruelty is casual, the theft is casual, Lemaitre’s attitude in all ways is casual. Detached, casual, sardonic. He disrespects you, reader. He mocks you with the receipt of your purchase. He suggests that he has won.

The last two pages of Irène are given over to the killer, in which to write greetings to Camille. The letter is set six months after the end of the conventional narrative, which closed as Camille looked at the dead and maimed body of his wife, Irène. The killer helpfully “reminds” Camille of what happened after that point; how the killer fled, was apprehended, how he is now in jail awaiting trial, how Camille is now suffering. In fact this is not a letter from the killer to Camille, who hunted him — it is a letter from the author, to the reader who suffered his nonsense, finishing the plot without necessitating further narration, and allowing him to laugh into the mirror as he counts his dirty, prizewinning gold:

Pierre Lemaitre, Irene

Lemaitre’s arrogance repels me, his misuse of far greater fiction dismays me, his contempt towards women and human pain upsets me. Irène is disingenuous, fatuous, and bad.

Claire Napier

Claire Napier

Critic, ex-Editor in Chief at WWAC, independent comics editor; the rock that drops on your head. Find me at and give me lots of money