The Readers' Room
“The denouement ties life, love, and mystery together, as all excellent murder mysteries do.”
Murder mysteries tend to be circuitous chronicles with characters distributed around the world. The best work in the genre, however, is straight-forward and ingenuous. The novels of Antoine Laurain, a Paris author, fit comfortably into the latter category. His new book, The Readers’ Room, translated from the French by Jane Aitken, Emily Boyce, and Polly Mackintosh, is a perfect example of fine writing and presents an intriguing riddle. It presents a mystery within a mystery. The short novel—170 pages—is exemplary.
The premise is simple, even if the ultimate outcome is not. Ms. Violaine Lepage is an editor at a prestigious Parisian publisher. She is the director of the readers’ room where staff and editors read unsolicited manuscripts. They find very few treasures, but the rare draft worthy of the highest grade—a su— receives immediate attention. That is what happened with Sugar Flowers, a narrative about murders by Camille Desencres. Violaine immediately has her colleagues read the draft. They quickly confirm her assessment.
There is only one difficulty. No one has heard of Camille Desencres, and the author has only supplied an email address. Violaine would normally invite the author for lunch followed by a contract signing, but Camille cannot be reached. In fact, she doesn’t even know whether Camille is a man or a woman. (The name in French works for both men and women.) The crime novel is published nonetheless, and it becomes an instant success.
The intrigue is compounded when the police of Rouen investigate a series of murders that follow the precise modus operandi of the killers in Sugar Flowers. They approach Violaine Lepage to find the author of the manuscript, but she cannot help. The investigation seems to have reached a dead end.
Violaine’s worst nightmare is that Sugar Flowers will be nominated for a national prize, the Prix Goncourt. What happens if her publisher cannot find the author to receive the award? Of course, the nomination does occur along with Violaine’s dread.
The denouement ties life, love, and mystery together, as all excellent murder mysteries do. The Prix Goncourt is a premier award in French literature, given by the académie Goncourt to the author of "the best and most imaginative prose work of the year." Laurain’s mystery novel deserves to be placed on this year’s short list for the prize.