David Foekinos’ The Mystery of Henri Pick marks the beginning of a collaboration between publishers Pushkin Press and Channel 4’s Walter Presents, a streaming service which provides a good deal of my TV entertainment with its subtitled European drama. Even without that, I’d have been interested in this book whose blurb promised a novel about people with ‘a deep love of books’. A young editor, the rising star at her publishers and newly in love, takes her boyfriend home to meet her parents and discovers a library devoted to rejected manuscripts.
Convinced of their brilliance, Delphine has fallen in love with both Frédéric and his first novel which, sadly, has resoundingly flopped. He moves in with her, working on his second book from their bed while her career glitters ever more brightly. Delphine takes Frédéric to meet her beloved parents in Brittany on her annual holiday, visiting the library for rejected manuscripts set up by a reclusive librarian, now dead, and still maintained by his assistant. They pick their way through the many manuscripts left by authors who’ve faced umpteen rejections, excited by the discovery of The Last Hours of a Love Affair by Henri Pick. Delphine tracks down Pick’s widow, persuading her to overcome her incredulity at the idea that her husband, far too busy at their pizza parlour to read, should not only have written a book but one which Delphine clearly considers a masterpiece. Delphine takes the manuscript back to Paris to publish which she does to much acclaim having convinced her publishing house that it should head their spring list. Before long, Pick’s novel is a bestseller, his widow and their daughter find themselves on TV and Crozon is firmly on the French literary map but not everyone is convinced. Jean-Michel Rouche, a journalist whose career is on the slide, smells a rat and spots an opportunity.
He still felt the same shiver of pleasure at reading a novel before the rest of the world
Foenkinos’ novel is pleasingly anchored in bookishness, gently satirising the publishing world in what turns into a literary detective story whose playful style reminded me a little of Antoine Laurain’s novels. The effects of sudden fame on a small town are neatly explored: a marriage is rejuvenated while cracks appear in another; memories are revisited and a love story revealed. The narrative bowls along, its nicely tension taut. I wasn’t entirely sure about the ending but this is a spoiler-free zone – I’ll leave that up to you to decide. All in all, the perfect inaugural title for this joint publishing project: a mystery in translation, echoing the many crime series streamed by Walter Presents, which comes with references to Pushkin, the publisher’s name. And I gather there’s a film of Foekinos’ novel, too.
Pushkin Press: London 2020 9781782275824 288 pages Paperback