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the complete review - fiction
The Enigma of Room 622
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- French title: L'Énigme de la Chambre 622
- Translated by Robert Bononno
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B- : too convoluted in its presentation for its own good, but there's some entertainment value to it, not least in how ridiculous the main plot winds up being
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
- "La frénésie avec laquelle les allers-retours dans le passé se succèdent, en fin de roman, ajoute à cet effet d’excès, à cette touche de burlesque. C’est donc avec la comédie que ce dernier polar du jeune écrivain surdoué flirte cette fois, tout en maintenant la tension qui nous pousse à nous rendre jusqu’au bout de l’intrigue. Les coups de théâtre, habilement pensés, se succèdent, mais ils ne sont pas toujours portés avec la force qu’ils pourraient avoir. Et on reste un peu avec l’impression que l’écrivain, à force de se chercher, s’est un peu égaré dans les genres en chemin." - Caroline Montpetit, Le Devoir
- "The Enigma of Room 622, with its many reversals, is by turns a gothic thriller, a romance and a semi-farce. (...) Mr. Dicker -- the book’s true author, not its protagonist -- keeps all moods and events in fine balance, saving one grand surprise for the final chapter of this exhilarating tour de force." - Tom Nolan, Wall Street Journal
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
At the beginning of The Enigma of Room 622 author Joël Dicker looks back to recent times, when he was working on a novel about longtime publisher, Bernard de Fallois, of Éditions de Fallois, shortly after Bernard's 2018 death, and beginning an affair with new next-door neighbor Sloane.
He writes that when, after two months, the affair came to an abrupt end he decided he needed a break he headed off to Verbier -- a place Bernard was also fond of.
He checks into the Hôtel de Verbier, and is given room 623 -- finding, as he is first led to it: "'That's strange,' I remarked to the porter, 'there's no room 622'".
There is, in fact an adjoining room -- but it is labeled 621A.
Along with the title of the novel, a one-page Prologue -- 'The Day of the Murder' -- has already prepared readers for the fact that there are issues with that particular room, as that short introductory section ends with the sentence: "On the carpet of room 622 lay a corpse".
As to what happened on that fateful day, and the identity of that corpse ... readers must wait a long, long while until those are revealed.
Dicker spins an elaborate mystery-tale, complete with the present-day framing device of him looking into the events surrounding what happened in room 622 --playing detective, as it were -- as well as writing up what he learns as a novel (this novel).
Yes, The Enigma of Room 622 presents both the writing-of the story, as well as the story itself.
The novel is dedicated to Bernard, and Dicker also weaves reflections on their relationship and the great success -- he is an internationally bestselling novelist -- it has brought him into the novel itself.
At the hotel, Dicker soon makes the acquaintance of his ... next-door neighbor, one Scarlett Leonas, who is staying in the mystery-room and who soon begins pushing Dicker to investigate what happened there.
It doesn't take long for them to discover that it was murder -- but, as noted, the identity of the victim is not immediately (or, in fact, for a very long time) revealed, despite it surely being noted in the newspaper reports that Scarlett and Dicker quickly collect.
(This is a harbinger of things (not) to come: among Dicker's favored fictional techniques is withholding significant information -- including, as here, when his characters obviously have it -- for as long as possible.)
As to the murderer, that identity too remains unknown -- but at least there is a reasonable explanation for that: "the crime had never been resolved" and: "The murderer was never revealed".
The Enigma of Room 622 jumps back and forth then, the novel: "a set of nested stories, and what could be seen as alternating registers or degrees of fiction". as translator Robert Bononno notes in a postscript to the book.
The back and forth can be dizzying -- so, for example, Part Four of the novel -- setting yet another new stage, 'Three Years After the Murder' -- opens with a chapter that begins when: "It was autumn in Geneva"; but as soon as the reader turns the page (literally just that one page ...) a sub-section of the chapter jumps back to: "Three years earlier -- mid-June", right back where the previous chapter had left off.
Back and forth and back it goes -- though at least the action mostly takes place in three main time-periods: the summer of 2018, when author Dicker is investigating the enigma of room 622 and writing his book; the time leading up to the murder, especially the days and hours around when it happens; and events from around fifteen years earlier (before the murder).
(There are also some leaps beyond these particular time-frames, as needed to fill in additional background and the like.)
Leaving aside the Dicker-timeline -- which functions mostly as a framing device, though in a sense it also guides what is being presented from the other timelines -- the novel focuses on Macaire Ebezner, his wife Anastasia, and Lev Levovitch.
Two overlapping storylines involve this trio: Macaire is the only son of Abel Ebezner, and the week in December leading up to the murder is also the week leading up the Ebenezer Bank's annual Gala Weekend at the Hôtel de Verbier, where the board of directors of Ebezner & Sons, a leading private Swiss bank, were set to announce the name of the new president, to succeed Abel, who had died earlier that year after fifteen years as head of the bank.
The presidency has always been handed down in the family, and Macaire expects to be named president -- but in those days leading up to the announcement he learns that some people seem to have other plans.
Meanwhile, Anastasia has been having an affair with Lev -- apparently the love of her life, but someone she is preparing to leave as her husband is named president.
Even as it looks like Lev might be named president instead .....
Macaire understands that: "It had all begun to unravel fifteen years earlier", when his grandfather died and the presidency went to his father -- and when both Lev and Anastasia's paths first crossed with each other and with him.
Both Macaire and Lev apparently made fateful choices back then, reverberating even fifteen years later.
As Lev admits: "The same day, we both paid the price for a decision that ruined our lives".
As to what those decisions were .. well, it's a while before that is revealed too.
Anastasia's mother was determined to marry her two daughters off to men of great wealth -- and the Gala Weekend, into which she snuck them in, was an ideal place to find an appropriate match.
Unfortunately, it was Lev that caught Anastasia's eye -- a lowly hotel employee at the time, rather than a wealthy banker.
He bluffed that he was a Romanov, which kept Anastasia's mother happy for a time, but of course his actual identity was eventually exposed -- and readers know that she wound up with Macaire.
And Macaire was indeed besotted by her -- and, as it turns out, acted, back then, in a way that impaired his position at the bank, all in order to win her over.
Macaire's father was impressed by Lev and offered him a position at the bank -- despite Lev having no professional training or higher education.
But Lev's experience working at the Hôtel de Verbier, and his polyglot abilities, served him very well, as he proved particularly adept at handling clients:
Soon everyone was talking about him.
Colleagues, managers, and clients were unanimous: the young man was extremely talented.
Macaire, meanwhile, does not greatly impress with his bank-work -- and especially in the year leading up to the murder seems to have been neglecting many of his duties.
He has an excuse -- but not one he can reveal: for twelve years he's been living a double-life, working as a secret agent for: "P-30, a section within the Department of Defence financed by a secret account, which was virtually unknown -- including to the powerful parliamentary intelligence committee -- and which reported directly to the Federal Council".
All these year's Macaire has been dealing with a single person, his handler, Wagner -- and, yes, if: "The whole business had the air of a spy novel", Macaire is fully on board and doesn't question the whole very odd set up.
Unsurprisingly, his work comes back to haunt him, right at the moment when he expects to be named president of the bank -- and then Wagner resurfaces, with some new demands .....
The small board of the bank was to decide on who would succeed Abel -- whereby the board members themselves were ineligible.
The board included members from the extended family line -- but also one mysterious outsider, the Mephistophelian Tarnogol who already fifteen years earlier had played a significant role in how things played out, and who continues to steer much of what happens.
Over the years, Macaire has also been regularly seeing a psychoanalyst, Dr. Kazan -- though apparently never asking himself whether it's wise to rely on a professional who was recommended to him by Lev ......
In the present-day, Dicker and Scarlett continue to piece together the puzzle.
They speak to many of those involved, and slowly put together the picture of what happened the night of the murder.
It is an often halting process.
Dicker goes to painful lengths to withhold information, and the novel is littered with scenes were someone is on the cusp of revealing something only for the opportunity to be lost:
"Macaire, I have to be honest with you."
The door to the room opened suddenly, interrupting them.
"Wait," his father cried.
"I did it for a good reason, all of it.
There's something I never told you ..."
Many of the characters bite their tongue when they really should be more open -- most notably Anastasia -- and of course Macaire sits on that big secret of working so long as a secret agent.
But the characters often choose not to explain themselves or their actions; too typically:
But Lev was done listening.
He ran out.
"What's going on, Macaire ?" Arma asked, as he rushed by.
Even the promise, at one point: "I'll explain" is immediately followed by: "It's more complicated than that".
Boy, is it ever.
He didn't bother to reply.
He jumped into his car and drove off at high speed.
Throughout The Enigma of Room 622, things and people are often not quite what they seem -- from Macaire as secret agent to Lev claiming to be a Romanov -- and Dicker eventually takes that up not just a notch but into the stratosphere.
It makes for an almost comic unraveling as to what actually was going on all those times -- ingenious, certainly, arguably, but also rather far-fetched (to put it mildly).
At its core, The Enigma of Room 622 is adolescent, a YA mystery that thinks big but in a childish way -- down to Macaire using lemon juice as invisible ink (yes, it works, but ...).
Somewhat surprisingly, it's the framing device that proves the most satisfying part of the novel.
Dicker admits, midway through:
You know, when I'm living the story, I'm completely consumed.
It's as if I was inside the book, part of the background.
And there were all these characters around me.
Dicker does capture this being completely consumed by writing well, and the book's final twist does leave it as a very nice homage to his publisher -- which was the book he originally intended to write, after all.
One almost has to appreciate Dicker's audacity in presenting a story as wild as that behind and around the enigma of room 622.
One can almost forgive its cartoonishness, because it is well-meaning -- Dicker only wants to spin a fun yarn and entertain, and plausibility (or convincing characters) are not high priorities -- but it does get mightily convoluted, the endless-seeming quick-fire whiplash-inducing back and forth sapping the novel of some of its energy, and some of the fun.
The frustrations over the constantly withheld information -- especially since it is done so blatantly -- don't help either.
- M.A.Orthofer, 18 September 2022
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The Enigma of Room 622:
Other books by Joël Dicker under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Swiss author Joël Dicker was born in 1985.
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© 2022 the complete review
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