By Paul Lemaitre (Translated by Frank Wynne)

ISBN: 9781623659035

I have relied for some years now on two companies, Oxbow Books and Postscript Books (psbooks on the internet), for much of my research material. Both publish a wide range of books that have been discarded by publishers. Rather than see them shredded, publishers sell them ridiculously cheaply to a number of companies and they pass on the reduced price to their customers.

For me it gives me an opportunity to purchase a number of academic books that I could not possibly afford usually. And it is cheaper to buy them than to travel all the way up to London to read them in the British Library.

Usually I will only buy academic titles, but every so often a title grabs my interest – and THE GREAT SWINDLE did.

Pierre Lemaitre has created a wonderful story here. It is not as dark as, perhaps, an American writer would have made it; there are plenty of flashes of humour and a lightness of characterisation that I wouldn’t expect in a transatlantic novel, but the story is no weaker for that – in fact, it makes the story work better, I think. 

Pierre Lemaitre is a crime writer with an international following. His books have won acclaim from the Crime Writers’ Association, and this book (under the original title of AU REVOIR LA-HAUT) won the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2013.

On the jacket, the main shout-line is “Three men’s lives, rewritten by war”, but it’s a lot more than that. The book is a fictionalised version of true events – the corruption and misappropriation of funds allocated for the exhumation and reburial in military cemeteries of the war dead. It is shocking now to read of the contempt with which the victims of the war were treated after the ‘14-‘18 war.

Lemaitre takes this a step further. 

The book begins in the last weeks of the First World War, with Albert Maillard at the front. We learn that he and the other men do not like their officer, Lieutenant d’Aulnay-Pradelle, who is determined to win his own laurels. Albert and the others didn’t like him. “Because Pradelle liked to charge. He genuinely enjoyed going over the top, storming, attacking.” That was not a trait that his men were likely to respect or like. 

And now, because it was apparent that the war was soon going to be over, the lieutenant was growing despondent. He was going to miss his opportunity. And so, he determined on one last throw of the dice. He arranged for one last sortie to try to ensure promotion. Everyone knew it would be safe enough. The Germans were keen not to exacerbate matters so close to the end of hostilities. So, when two scouts over the top, the French were appalled to hear three shots, and see that the two scouts were killed. 

But Albert passed the two bodies and realised that the two had been shot in the back. Shortly after, an exploding shell buries him, the nightmare feared by all soldiers at the Front. A companion from the platoon sees him fall, and rushes to help him. This man, Edouard Pericourt, scrabbles the soil away and brings him out, just as another shell detonates, and shrapnel horribly mutilates Edouard.

From that moment, Albert and Edouard are bound together. D’Aulnay-Pradelle meanwhile manages to marry well, and soon is a wealthy man-about-town. But Albert doesn’t forget him. 

That is basically the first thirty or so pages. And the book then goes on to look at the appalling fraudulent deals around the war dead, and another brilliantly inventive swindle around the memorials which were being bought all over France in honour of their dead young men. 

This is a fascinating book set during an amazing period, and in which there are no winners. Profiteers from the dead, bankers, politicians, and the shattered soldiers with PTSD, none come out of all this very well. But Lemaitre is a great writer who has an almost instinctive understanding of the weak, poor and defenceless. I found this book oddly compelling; “oddly” because I would usually prefer a less literary style of writing, but I have to admit that this really gripped me. Perhaps because of the superb translation by Frank Wynne. The translator’s work should never be ignored in a work like this – maintaining the author’s vision while still making it comprehensible to a  reader in a different language is a tough job. Wynne did a brilliant job here.

If you want a copy, use this link:

3 Responses to “Review: THE GREAT SWINDLE”
  1. I use Postscript too, but the prices are too high for me on Oxbow. Anyway an interesting review, Michael. Thanks for pointing out a fascinating book. I shall have to look for it.


    • I do agree – and I don’t really find Oxbow that useful for me nowadays. PS Books are much more in my sort of area, with a good enough variety of books that are worth looking into. I mention Oxbow, because for some authors, their ancient history research material may well be very useful. Thanks for the comment, Clare!


  2. Jack Eason says:

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    Michael’s review…


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