The Mystery of Henri Pick (2020) by David Foenkinos (Trans. Sam Taylor)

I fear I am going to become a book grump again. Although the focus of my blog doesn’t enable me to share my fondness for quirky literary fiction, I do actually enjoy such books.  The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain, The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Thériault, The Best Book in the World by Peter Stjernström and The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry are all books I really enjoyed reading. But what I find I am getting more cheesed off with, are quirky literary novels which are being marketed as mysteries when even the loosest definition of the term struggles to fit the narrative offered.

However, having been disappointed last year by Laurain’s The Readers’ Room, (which fails to combine the author’s usual writing style with the mystery genre mould), I was on my guard with this one. Just because mystery was in the title, does not mean that there is going to be much of a mystery. I am not that naïve. Moreover, if we take a look at the synopsis given:

In the small town of Crozon in Brittany, a library houses manuscripts that were rejected for publication: the faded dreams of aspiring writers. Visiting while on holiday, young editor Delphine Despero is thrilled to discover a novel so powerful that she feels compelled to bring it back to Paris to publish it.

The book is a sensation, prompting fevered interest in the identity of its author – apparently one Henri Pick, a now-deceased pizza chef from Crozon. Sceptics cry that the whole thing is a hoax: how could this man have written such a masterpiece? An obstinate journalist, Jean-Michel Rouche, heads to Brittany to investigate.

By turns funny and moving, The Mystery of Henri Pick is a fast-paced comic mystery enriched by a deep love of books – and of the authors who write them.

We again see this word, this time combined with comic. Right so a comic mystery… Regular readers of the blog will know I am fond of those too.

Now I wasn’t expecting a body in the library. From the blurb alone you can tell this is going to be a non-crime-based mystery, which is fine. I don’t need murder if something else is engagingly offered as an alternative. The term mystery is so wobbly a jelly of a term that I can conceive a mystery being written along the lines of figuring out who an author is behind a manuscript. But then I feel the publishers went one step too far when I turned the book and saw the following information on the back…

A whodunnit?!! That really was stretching things too much for me. The whodunnit has developed and evolved over time, yet it has retained enough of its original expectations, that to call this book a whodunnit is ludicrous and is downright misleading. It would be like someone bringing out a new edition of And Then There Were None and including romance as its primary category.

Before someone points it out, you can sort of make a case that the book is a whodunnit in that it is purporting to look for who done the book or to put it into better English, who wrote the book. However, even if we accept this proposition, we run into another problem with trying to consider this book as a mystery: 95% of the book at least is not remotely focused on or even mentioning the central mystery posed. Eventually around 60% of the way into the book the idea is tentatively picked up, only to really grab centre stage for a chapter or so at the end of the book. Moreover, going against the principle of mystery fiction to show rather than tell, (to enable the reader to take part in the sleuthing), this book very much does the opposite.  

Foenkinos’ book at the end of the day does not set out to be a mystery, regardless of what the cover tries to tell us. It is a quirky literary novel and based on the ones I have read the primary focus of such works are relationships and self-discovery. And if you judge the book based on this correct criteria then it does very well, even if numerous developments were rather predictable. (A slight issue with the quirky literary school of literature is that their characters invariably discover the same things about themselves).

However, to shake off my book grumpiness here are some reasons why you should try this book:

  • The concept of a library accepting rejected manuscripts is a really cool idea and it is weaved well into the plot, alongside the publishing world which the writer describes engagingly, poking fun at the way quality is not the primary reason a book becomes a bestseller.
  • There are some good moments of humour, (though I could have done with some more). One of my favourite scenes is at the start of the book when we are learning about the librarian and its founder, Jean-Pierre Gourvec. At one point he is taking on an assistant, who is the complete opposite of him, in her lukewarm attitude towards books and taking on books that publishers did not want:

‘But anyway, it’s a weird idea. And do you really want them to bring them books here? We’ll get stuck with all the psychopaths in the area. Writers are mad, everybody knows that. And ones who aren’t published… they must be even worse.’

‘They finally have a place. Think of it as charity work.’

‘I get it: you want me to be the Mother Teresa of failed writers.’

  • An interesting ending, though if viewed through the lens of a mystery, readers may find it fairly anti-climactic. But if you regard it through the lens of literary fiction, then it becomes more enjoyable.

So perhaps I had less of a problem with the book itself, as you can see from my rating below, and more of an issue with the way publishers promote and advertise their books. Maybe quirky literary novels should just be allowed to be quirky literary novels and that they shouldn’t try to shoehorn in or try and brand themselves as offering more than that. Hopefully I am not the only one struggling with this bugbear!

Rating: 4/5

9 comments

  1. Thanks for the review, and it’s frustrating to pick up a novel that has been marketed or categorised in a misleading fashion. 😣 I’m currently reading a humorous mystery written by Lynne Truss (of “Eats Shoots and Leaves” fame) which is set in post-war Brighton. Might it qualify as a “quirky literary novel”? 🤔 It does seem to be a mystery thus far, though the purported victim hasn’t yet met his demise. A review I read suggests it’s even a fair-play mystery, and so I’m hopeful… 🤓✨

    Liked by 1 person

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