The Readers’ Room (2020) by Antoine Laurain

This is my third 2020 published read of the month! I’ve read a number of other books by Laurain, my top two reads being The President’s Hat (2012) and The Red Notebook (2014), though I also enjoyed Smoking Kills (2008) and Vintage 1954 (2018).

From blurb given below, you can see why I thought it was a suitable title to review for the blog:

‘When the manuscript of a debut crime novel arrives at a Parisian publishing house, everyone in the readers’ room is convinced it’s something special – and the committee for France’s highest literary honour, the Prix Goncourt, agrees. But when the prize shortlist is announced, there’s a problem for editor Violaine Lepage: she has no idea of the author’s identity. As the police begin to investigate a series of murders strangely reminiscent of those in the book, Violaine is not the only one looking for answers. And she’s beginning to wonder what role she might play in the story…’

Overall Thoughts

Given my experience of Laurain’s writing style I was not surprised by the indirect route taken to the ideas mentioned in the blurb and the leisurely pace of the opening chapters. I mention this as readers new to Laurain’s work, taking the blurb at its face value might be expecting a narrative which is murder/crime focused from the get-go.

The beginning of this book takes it time to build up its picture of the publishing world, and an important editor within it, Violaine Lepage. We encounter a number of flashbacks which reveal Violaine’s injuries from a plane crash, as well as the entrance of the crime novel. Violaine has only ever been able to contact the author of the novel via email and there is nice moment where these emails get more sinister and make you wonder how Violaine is personally connected to the book.

My experience of Laurain’s books leads me to conclude that they tend to be concept based, in that the author sets up an unusual situation and then looks at what the consequences are if person X does action Y. They have something of a domino effect. At times the concepts in question centre on a physical object, such as a hat, a notebook, or even in one case a bottle of wine. These books have mostly been literary comic narratives, though Vintage 1954, does stray a little into the world of sci-fi with its time travel. However, when it comes to The Reader’s Room, I don’t think adding a detective fiction strand into the usual mix of elements foung in Laurain’s work, is successful, and I would say it weakens the impact that Laurain’s narratives often have.

I think this is because the demands of a detective fiction plot vs. the demands of a literary-character-study-wrapped-around-quirky-concepts, do not gel easily. They are invariably at war with one another and jar as a consequence. For two thirds of the book, the idea of a revenge plot concealed in a book is never centre staged. It is incidental and the book is far more interested in looking at Violaine’s past life and how she is coping with the aftermath of the accident she was in.

At this juncture I noted that this was a novel with a crime in, rather than a crime novel – despite the blurb suggesting otherwise. A marketing ploy me thinks… However, 40 pages from the end, the writer seems to remember that they set up a detective fiction plot and that they should probably bring it to a conclusion of sorts. The police investigation is then given more page space and we even have a very short, random chapter which has one of the police officers involved use an artificial intelligence machine to help solve the case.

Thankfully despite some elements of the book being quite dark, these do not overwhelm the plot and we see the rare example of fictional police officers who have functional albeit imperfect love lives – though this is one instance of how the author leaves some narrative strands unresolved.

So to the solution! In and of itself it is alright, though a crime fiction fan will probably feel cheated by it. Moreover, the writer’s manner of delivering the solution to the mystery is not hugely satisfying, as the reader is simply told the answer and then the ending limps to a conclusion a few pages latter. Given the dubious ethics of the solution, I would have expected a little more in-page response to it, but alas there was not.

Perhaps having read a few modern novels this month which are mystery/crime themed, I am reminded of the importance of plotting – and with books like today’s I am left wondering where the art of plotting has gone…

Rating: 3.75/5

7 comments

  1. A great review, Kate! Your observation about detective fiction plotting and literary fiction concept writing being at odds is a great one — yes, detective mysteries are formula-based, but that just enhances the structural reward of mystery, development, and solution. And it also allows frequent readers to identify when the plotting and structure are done well and when they’re done badly: it shows in the architecture itself.

    Thanks also for reading and reviewing brand new “crime novel” stories – I rarely read new fiction, and I often wonder what I’m missing (or not missing).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I immensely enjoyed the book. Granted the crime element got me to try it, and truly it was the Metafiction aspect that attracted my attention. But as I read the book I realized it’s not at all a detective novel. It’s a novel of the search for identity. I guess I’m one of the few readers who allows the book to speak to me rather than the marketing. I didn’t care that it was t really a mystery. There are plenty of books that include murder investigations that aren’t true detective novels. I think the book as a while works rather well.

    I have been longing to find a writer like this guy for decades. If renews my faith in imagination and what I think construed real novel writing. The best part of this discovery was learning that all of Laurain’s book are at my local branch of the vast Chicago Public Library system and I’ll be reading them all. I read just his first novel —with the English title The Portrait — in a single day. Interestingly, it’s also about identity as well as the mania of antique collecting. Loved it! It ought to made into a movie.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I look forward to seeing what you make of Laurain’s other books, I mentioned on your post my preference for The President’s Hat and The Red Notebook, but Vintage 1954 and Smoking Kills are also good titles by him. Laurain’s writing style is great and I will always check to see what his latest book is about. Nevertheless, in this book that style, for me, did not come to fore as well, as it was trying to do the usual Laurain type story with a detective structure and the two did not blend for me at all. As I said on my latest review for The Mystery of Henri Pick, I love quirky literary novels, but I am fast becoming tired of quirky literary novels trying to be bona fide mysteries too.

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  3. Lots of typos above. Should be:
    “…book as a whole works…”
    “…wasn’t really a mystery…”
    “It renews my faith…”
    “…what I think constitutes real novel…”
    This is what comes of typing comments on my phone which loves to autocorrect my thoughts with insane substitutions.

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