The Great Swindle by Pierre Lemaitre

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Translated by Frank Wynne

Reviewed by Annabel

French author Lemaitre is best known for his gory yet gripping trilogy of serial killer novels featuring the detective Camille Verhoeven. They aren’t for the faint-hearted, but Lemaitre’s detective is so well-drawn and the tension in the books so well-judged that once started, they were unputdownable for me.

The Great Swindle marks a departure from the contemporary crime novel; Lemaitre has turned to war-torn France in 1918 for this novel, which won the Prix Goncourt in 2013, France’s preeminent prize for literature. It is the first in a proposed series of seven novels spanning the inter-war years. If subsequent volumes are as good as this first one, they will be an absolute treat to look forward to as they are translated. I hope that Frank Wynne will continue as Lemaitre’s English translator.

In the dying days of the Great War, an ambitious and unscrupulous Lieutenant, Henri d’Aulnay Pradelle, sends two scouts over the top and secretly shoots them in the back. The troops are incited to fight again and Pradelle is sure he’ll get promoted.

He didn’t count on witnesses though. Albert Maillard has gone over the top when he finds the bodies of the scouts, the old man on top of the young one:

Albert does not know what comes over him, but instinctively he grabs the old man’s shoulder and heaves. The dead man topples over and lands heavily on his belly. It takes several seconds for the penny to drop. Then suddenly the truth is glaringly obvious: when a man is advancing towards the enemy, he does not die from two bullets in his back. […]

Now he stands before the body of young Louis. The boy’s hands, clenched into fists, are pressed against his mouth and in this pose he seems so young; he is barely twenty-two. Albert cannot see his face which is caked in mud He can see only the boy’s back. One bullet wound. With the two bullets in the old man, that makes three. And only three shots were fired.

Pradelle spots Albert and leaves him for dead buried under mud from a shell that explodes nearby, but he didn’t count on Édouard Péricourt, himself badly injured, saving Albert. Édouard knows that:

…there is something disturbing about Lieutenant Pradelle, no-one in the unit can stand him. Pradelle is living confirmation of the old cliché that the real threat to a soldier is not the enemy but his commanding officer.

Édouard suffers the most horrendous injuries, having most of his bottom jaw shot away. He refuses the plastic surgery offered and lets Albert find him a new identity. Édouard, a difficult young man, has no love for his father and prefers his sister Madeleine think him dead.

As in his contemporary crime thrillers, Lemaitre does not shy away from gore in the battle for Hill 113 and we are left in no doubt of the incompetence of the military either. Albert and Édouard are finally released back to civilian life, Édouard in Albert’s care, but it’s not a good life. Back in Paris, Albert, suffering from PTSD has to work all hours at awful jobs to support them both – Édouard having assumed the identity of a dead man can’t claim a veteran’s pension, and he needs increasing amounts of morphine to keep the pain at bay, so the pair live in absolute poverty.

The one thing Édouard can still do is draw, and he comes up with a plan, a grand scheme to swindle the whole country that had made them penniless.

Meanwhile Pradelle sets his sights on marrying into money, wooing Madeleine. Péricourt père doesn’t trust him though, and Pradelle is forced to come up with a dastardly plan of his own to make a fortune and impress his new family.

I can’t give you any more details of either con or what happens to any of the characters really without spoiling the novel, save to say that Pradelle’s actions are inhuman and disgusting and I couldn’t wait for his comeuppance. Although Albert and Édouard’s swindle will, of course, make them wanted men if they pull it off, you can’t help but hope that they get away with it.

The scale of this novel is truly epic, yet throughout, Lemaitre drills down to the individual stories of all the main characters, making it epic on a human scale. From the scenes in the military hospital to the anguish of Édouard’s father and the unsavoury hygiene of the strongly moral government inspector Joseph Merlin – the secondary characters each have their own lives too.

With The Great Swindle Lemaitre has proved that he can write convincing historical drama just as well as his contemporary work. This novel is just as gripping as his others, more so in a way, in its meticulous historical detail. If the volumes to follow maintain the high standards of this remarkable novel, I feel we could have a new Les Misérables on our hands.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Pierre Lemaitre, The Great Swindle (Maclehose, 2015). 978-1784296582, 464 pp., hardback.

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