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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Great Swindle

Pierre Lemaitre

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To purchase The Great Swindle

Title: The Great Swindle
Author: Pierre Lemaitre
Genre: Novel
Written: 2013 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 435 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Great Swindle - US
The Great Swindle - UK
The Great Swindle - Canada
Au revoir là-haut - Canada
The Great Swindle - India
Au revoir là-haut - France
Wir sehen uns dort oben - Deutschland
Ci rivediamo lassù - Italia
Nos vemos allá arriba - España
  • French title: Au revoir là-haut
  • Translated by Frank Wynne
  • Prix Goncourt, 2013

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Our Assessment:

B : reasonably entertaining, decently paced

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 4/12/2015 Tobias Grey
The Independent A 20/11/2015 Edward Wilson
NZZ . 18/12/2014 Matthias Hennig
The NY Times . 5/10/2015 Sarah Lyall
The Times . 14/11/2015 Marcel Berlins
World Lit. Today . 5-8/2014 Adele King
Die Zeit . 11/12/2014 Susanne Mayer

  From the Reviews:
  • "By exploring the murky virtues of remembrance, Lemaitre gives the book a compelling contemporary twist at a time when Europe has been looking back on the first world war’s centenary with various degrees of solemnity and hesitation. This is a historical novel about the difficulty of coming to terms with history, and it is wonderfully readable to boot." - Tobias Grey, Financial Times

  • "This book is alternately tender and ghoulish. (...) Lemaitre's novel is a rare synthesis of the tragic and the comic -- and the book's dénouement is a masterclass in nail-biting suspense. The author is at his best when probing the human condition." - Edward Wilson, The Independent

  • "Das Buch ist flott und unterhaltsam geschrieben, aber wie ein Blockbuster zu sehr auf Suspense und Effekt getrimmt. Es hat Verve und Tempo, nichts sprengt das auf einen Sog hingeschriebene Kontinuum des Erzählens -- der Autor versteht sein Handwerk zu gut, um nur nicht den Hauch von Langeweile aufkommen zu lassen." - Matthias Hennig, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Mr. Lemaitre, acclaimed in France as a crime writer, is not one to leave interpretation to chance, make points through omission or force anyone to read between the lines. (...) Mr. Lemaitre’s background in crime fiction shows through in the intricate plotting and suspenseful pacing of The Great Swindle, which at times reads like a thriller." - Sarah Lyall, The New York Times

  • "In its use of slang and its fast-paced style, it is closer to Lemaître’s earlier work (a number of best-selling detective novels) than to most prizewinning novels." - Adele King, World Literature Today

  • "Man mag kritisch einwenden, dass Lemaitres Kunst sich in Thema und Plot erschöpft, seine Charaktere aber ein wenig holzschnittartig geraten sind. Allerdings gesegnet mit ihren tollkühnen Einfällen." - Susanne Mayer, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Great Swindle begins on the French-German front just as the 'Great War' is ending, in November 1918, on the fateful day when the lives of enlisted men Albert Maillard and Édouard Péricourt and their commanding officer, Lieutenant Henri d'Aulnay-Pradelle, become horrifically crossed.
       It's reached a point where almost everyone is now just waiting for the armistice to be signed and the fighting has tapered off to something of a stand-off, with neither side showing much eagerness to engage in any combat any longer. But Pradelle is ambitious and sees and creates an opportunity, to defeat the Germans in one last battle over one last hill. To set things in motion, however, takes a heinous act on his part -- but, unscrupulous as he is, that's not really a problem for him. In the heat of battle Albert comes to realizes what Pradelle's done -- and Pradelle realizes Albert is onto him. In the confrontation that follows Pradelle leaves Albert for dead -- but Édouard saves him, only then to nearly lose his life and be saved by Albert in turn.
       Édouard's family is wealthy, but Édouard, horribly disfigured -- like a: "golem, hobbling on his useless leg, with a gaping hole in the middle of his face" -- doesn't want to return to them. Albert helps Édouard out, but doing so requires some morally and legally dubious actions on his part that leave him vulnerable -- as Pradelle, surprised to find Albert still alive, quickly grasps. With no hard evidence in hand against his commanding officer -- and not eager to have anyone look into his and Édouard's lives and actions at the end of the war -- Albert can't report Pradelle, and they reach a sort of understanding, just getting on with their lives.
       Pradelle manages considerably better, not only marrying Édouard's sister, Madeleine (who, along with her wealthy father, has been led to believe that Édouard is dead), but setting himself up in business, realizing there's big money to be made in the reinterring of France's fallen soldiers:

He had calculated that if they found two thousand bodies, he would make enough to be able to reroof half of the stables at la Sallevière.
       Three thousand five hundred and he could reroof all the stables.
       Four thousand, and he would renovate the dovecote.
       Albert is reduced to penury: his old bank job is no longer available for him -- and the love of his life, Cécile, has dumped him. He also takes care of Édouard, who never leaves the dismal quarters they share -- and has quite the morphine habit (the expense of which is a huge burden on Albert).
       Albert is a cautious man, "so timid, so fearful", rarely able to act. (Strikingly, when he does it often winds up being something criminal -- which he is not very comfortable with.) Édouard is an artistic type, but after his disfiguring injury, which also renders him unable to speak, he seems content to wallow in his suffering -- and the relief brought by morphine. It's only slowly that he takes up drawing again -- as well as, in one of Lemaitre's most inspired touches, the creating of masks out of paper mache.
       It is Édouard who has the inspiration for how he and Albert can improve their situation, a swindle of epic proportions that takes advantage of the French post-war fever to memorialize the dead -- in other words, taking advantage of conditions and sentiment very much like Pradelle is. Albert finally lets himself be convinced to go along with it -- even as it entails him embezzling funds to get the cash to get the operation rolling.
       Lemaitre didn't title the novel 'the great swindle', and the swindle -- or swindles, as Pradelle's scheme ultimately isn't anything else either (the horrible short-cut he takes with the coffins he charges the state for to guarantee even greater profits just one of the aspects of the scheme that make it a swindle) -- don't truly dominate the story, they're just parts of a larger tapestry, albeit significant ones.
       The Great Swindle reads more like a nineteenth- than twenty-first-century novel, Lemaitre trying to follow in the schools of Balzac, Dumas, or Eugène Sue, with a whirl of activity (and much dirty dealing, especially in business-matters), moving easily across all social classes, and with a good dose both of the political life of the day, as well as scenes from the lives of both the privileged and those who have practically nothing.
       Lemaitre doesn't handle his cast of characters with great dexterity, too many remaining too flat -- even Édouard. There are some nice touches -- Édouard's sister (and Pradelle's wife) Madeleine proves to have the full measure of her husband, and unsentimentally acts accordingly (which leads to a nice scene when she finally tells Pradelle what's what), or the landlady's daughter, Louise, who befriends Édouard -- but Lemaitre only gets so far with, and into, his characters.
       The pacing of the novel is quite good, however, -- helped by the action jumping ahead by a year and then several months from one part to the next, so that Lemaitre doesn't bog himself down in the details: the leap from November 1918 to November 1919, with details from the passed-over year quickly filled in, is much easier to deal with than if Lemaitre had dragged readers through the entire span.
       There's some suspense throughout, as Albert and Pradelle have secrets to hide and are threatened by exposure, and there are races against time, but Lemaitre can't quite pull it off on the grander scale: tellingly -- and disappointingly -- he's reduced to a 'what became of them'-Epilogue, in which he reveals what happened to each of the significant characters after the turning-points (which include the predictable collapse of both Albert and Édouard's swindle, as well as that of Pradelle) with which the novel concludes. If not quite anticlimactic, The Great Swindle certainly fizzles out some in its conclusion.
       Lemaitre doesn't show quite enough nineteenth-century patience -- this is a novel in which both the characters and the schemes would have been well-served by being far more fleshed-out -- and so there's a sketchy, thin quality to much of it (despite its length), which is a shame. Nevertheless, if not exactly a rip-roaring read, The Great Swindle moves along nicely enough and it is quite consistently entertaining.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 October 2015

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The Great Swindle: Reviews: Other books by Pierre Lemaitre under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Pierre Lemaitre was born in 1951.

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© 2015-2021 the complete review

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