Review: L'Énigme de la chambre 622 by Joël Dicker
Okay all, buckle your butts, because it's time for another rant!
I have so many thoughts about Joël Dicker, and absolutely every single one of them is contradictory.
Firstly - he used to be an absolutely brilliant thriller writer while being completely shit at everything else. His stories and his plots and his pacing are excellent: his first two thrillers, La Vérité sur l'affaire Harry Quebert et La Disparition de Stephanie Mailer, were absolutely excellent. They were gripping and brilliantly plotted, and because the story and the pacing dragged you along with it, you were able to forgive the melodramatic, ridiculously awful dialogue; and the sometimes flat characterization; and the grandstanding that all of the characters do. But in his non-thriller books, you absolutely cannot - the pulpy stories and his bad writing do not lend themselves to anything he tries to do that comes off as literature. He is not a good writer but insists on trying to be one, and throws out all the fancy tricks he thinks great writers should be able to do, but because he can't actually write for shit it all comes off as terribly try-hardy and just falls completely flat and in moments, it can be really, really painful to read.
And, hooo boy, does that come through in this book.
L'Enigme de la chambre 622 presumably covers a murder that took place in a fancy Geneva hotel an unspecified number of years ago, and the plot construction is that the main character is a slightly fictionalized version of Dicker himself, who is solving the murder accompanied by a plucky fellow hotel resident, who also happens to be a beautiful and mysterious Englishwoman. It's literally every single awful trope of the thriller genre brought to life - the femme fatale who's only discernible character trait is that she's alluring and the writer who is so committed to his job that he drives off all romantic pursuit but is just soooo damn appealing anyway. 200 pages into the book, and the only discernible plot was Dicker giving himself a self-congratulatory wank over how brilliant of a writer he is. It's insufferable when a legitimately great writer does it, but coming from a mediocre writer who's only good at one of the tools an author should have mastered, it's absolutely unbearable.
This book had none of the things Dicker does well to patch over the things he does poorly. The mystery itself was ridiculously and needlessly complex, and we didn't spend nearly enough time with it, so we could never get properly gripped by it or want to power through all of the god-awful 'personal' moments where the author just goes on and on and on about how successful and great he is. He refers to himself, multiple times, as The Author. Unironically. Dicker's character of Dicker also does the false modesty thing that absolutely drives me insane - there's one section where he goes on for paragraphs about how his book came out in the same week as a J.K. Rowling and lo and behold, his was more successful! Aw, shucks, what a lucky coincidence but I'm going to talk about it for paragraphs so that you really understand how brilliant I am. Again - not great from a good writer; absolutely uncalled for in a mediocre one.
The dialogue was pulpy, melodramatic, overwrought, overblown, and repetitive. He uses! Too many! Exclamation points! Every other line is an exclamation! And, super annoyingly, he keeps using his characters' names over and over again in the dialogue - it's as if, Reader, he's convinced himself, Reader, that his readers are too stupid, Reader, to keep track, Reader, of who is talking at any given moment, Reader. It gets very annoying very quickly, especially considering how god-awful the dialogue is and how flat and interchangeable the characters themselves are. They are all grandiloquent, caricatural, and stupid with absolutely no discernible character traits or any sense of conviction of the ideals they are meant to represent. Every single character was flat, poorly executed, badly drawn, and such extreme versions of a thriller character trope that it completely tipped over into pastiche and parody - fine if you're writing parody; decidedly bad if you're trying to write an intelligent, self-aware thriller mystery.
And for a mystery that had so much potential, it falls terribly flat because we got to spend so little time with it - and is poorly executed to boot. The constantly shifting timelines were never properly thought through and so ended up being confusing and overwhelming rather than tricky and clever, and the fact that we move back and forth so often without Dicker ever really bother to construct a coherent narrative; by the time I was halfway through, I was already so sick of the forced aura of mystery and the stupidly shifting timelines that I had lost all interest in the murder itself. Again - not great if you're meant to be writing a thriller! The resolution of the story relies entirely on a completely ridiculous deus ex machina and a plot twist that was thrown in purely for the sake of the plot twist (my absolute least favorite thing, as you are all aware). It's a stupid, cheap, lazy 'plot twist' for the sake of a plot twist that is criminally insulting to the readers' intelligence, and is so theatrical and shoddy it actually made me scream. The plot goes back and forth and up and down with no rhyme or reason, and the plot twists that need to happen to make everything hang together happen in such an unbelievable, ridiculous way that just about every character comes off as downright delusional. The way the timeline shifts around like a bumpy rollercoaster is honestly imbecilic, because it adds nothing to the narrative and instills a false sense of confusion that never even ends up being important or narratively significant. There is no context or shared sense of reality between the reader and this novel, so it feels like theres's no point in even trying to follow along. And the writing was just so flat - universally mediocre with little, if anything, to pick it back up and make it worth the slog of the nearly 600 pages.
This book would have been instantly improved by cutting out the autobiographical element and just focusing on the mystery, and would have had the benefit of cutting nearly 300 pages from this overly-long book. And it was never made clear to me, even throughout the overtly and saccharine larmoyant epilogue where Dicker goes on and on and on in his false modesty of how great he is and how he will never make a good romantic partner because he just loves literature so much, why that needed to be such an important part of the narrative. It added absolutely nothing other than my rage. I think it was an attempt to make his book a meta thriller, but it's just bad.
And it's so disappointing, because again, I loved Dicker's first two thrillers - and really wanted to like this one. But his grandiloquent writing, his terrible dialogue, his awful characters, all combines to make a book that is both badly written and boring, and that's unforgivable from the point of view of someone who's trying to write a thriller. Honestly, Dicker should just stick to what he does best - pulpy, gripping thrillers with little to no literary value. He's not a good writer, so he should stop trying to convince us all that he can do literature when he's really better off just sticking to the one thing he can do well.
This entire book was a boggy morass of mediocre attempting to be Serious Literature, with not even a dash of anything half-decent to make it salvageable. Don't read it, guys. Give it a hard pass. Stick it straight in the bin.
I think this might be the last Dicker I ever read - there was a hint in his stupidly saccharine and pathetically over-the-top ending that he might be ending his writing career, and I sincerely hope he does, because anybody who's had this precipitous of a fall in the quality of his writing honestly needs to find himself a different day job.
Yours in solidarity in overcoming bad books,