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…’
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…