Translated by Robert Bononno — With 12 million books sold worldwide, Swiss author Joël Dicker is a global success and one of the most popular authors in the French-speaking world. His road to fame began in 2010 when he was awarded the Geneva Writers’ Prize for unpublished manuscripts, and Parisian editor Bernard de Fallois purchased the rights to publish his winning submission. A few months later, de Fallois released the book that made Dicker famous, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, which in turn became a TV series. Bernard de Fallois died in 2018, and with The Enigma of Room 622 Dicker pays homage to his publisher, mentor and friend.
Like The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, the protagonist here is an author and it’s no less than Joël Dicker himself. He is recuperating at the Hotel de Verbier after two traumatic experiences – the recent death of Bernard and breaking up with his girlfriend, Sloane. In the story, he sets out to write a novel about his publisher but, when the staff’s secrecy about the absence of a Room 622 in the hotel piques his interest, a different seed is planted.
Scarletta Leonas, another guest at the hotel, discovers that the reason there’s no Room 622 is that an unsolved murder has occurred. She begins working with Joël as a sort of assistant and the two amateur sleuths attempt to establish the sequence of the events leading up to the weekend of the murder.
While they investigate Joël, tells Scarlett about his friendship with Bernard. It seems as though their relationship will play an important role in the story, but it this is simply Dicker’s way of honouring the man responsible for his success and these discussions begin to feel extraneous.
The unsolved murder is inextricably linked to the lives of the employees at Switzerland’s largest bank. Joël’s character and storyline fades into the background against the multi-faceted layers of the nested story’s cast of characters, their intricate, complex backstories and intertwined relationships. There are long sections where Joël as narrator completely disappears and instead we find ourselves in the midst of bank employee melodrama.
Every December all the employees are invited to spend two days at Hotel de Verbier. A gala dinner is held to announce the bank’s new president following the passing of the elderly Abel Ebezner. The man’s son, Macaire Ebezner, is convinced it will be him, but is unaware of a power struggle taking place behind his back. The right bloodline does not guarantee a cushy job. Even less so if you have a reputation for being late for work and losing your clients’ money.
But Macaire is leading a double life. When he’s supposed to be at work, he’s sneaking off on missions for an intelligence unit called P-30. Meanwhile, his wife Anastasia is having an affair with one of his colleagues. Macaire’s character borders on caricature. His cloak and dagger missions are almost farcical; we’re unsure whether he should be taken seriously or pitied and his naivety is equal parts endearing and annoying.
Aside from the affair, espionage and corporate politics, embezzlement has been going on at the bank. All the angles are there to set up a murder mystery, but who had the most likely motive? For a large part of the story we are kept in the dark about the murder victim’s identity so we are left wondering not just who the killer was, but who was killed. It’s an interesting device.
In a recent interview Dicker mentioned that it took him two-and-a half-years to write the novel because he did so without a plan. His idea was to set in crime story in Switzerland and the story evolved from there. This process is underlined by his writing style. The combination of a long-winded story and frequent switching between multiple timelines requires patience and concentration.
Initially we are intrigued: the premise seems interesting and unique. Unfortunately, this type of plotting can’t hold the attention across almost 600 pages. More vigorous editing of this quasi-autobiographical novel might have resulted in a more concise and satisfying read. On the flipside, this is Dicker’s style, and fans of his work have grown to expect a high level of complexity and detail from his books.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars