Antoine Laurain – Smoking Kills (Translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie), Gallic Books, 19/05/2018. Original title Fume et tue, Le Passage, 2008
A book review by Jonas Rohe, Queen’s University Belfast
“At the beginning of his career, the smoker is generally intent on killing no one but himself. But forces beyond my control drove me to become a killer of others.”
Fabrice Valentine has worked as a senior head-hunter in big Parisian company for over 20 years and is living the good life: he has a wonderful wife, is successful in his job and always has his beloved cigarettes handy, which are his trusted friends through hard times. The only thing that is threatening his happiness is a change in the French smoking regulations. Suddenly, Valentine finds himself in a more and more smoke hostile environment. At first, he can no longer smoke in his office and then his family and friends start to pressure him to try out a new way to quit smoking: hypnosis. Valentine has no real intention of giving up his poison of choice, but to appease his peers he finally agrees to meet with the hypnotist, who is supposed to end his beloved addiction for ever. To Valentine´s great surprise the urge to smoke has vanished completely and what’s more he doesn’t even miss it. On top of this, he is offered the seat of CEO in his headhunting company. Life could not be much better…
Until it all falls apart, first Valentine’s boss dies before he can tell anyone of Valentine’s promotion and is replaced by a jumped-up youngster, who is obsessed with health issues and has entirely different ideas about running the headhunting business. He then discovers that his wonderful wife is having an affair with an obscure artist and is threating to leave him. Distressed, Valentine turns again to his cigarettes, but after years of reliable pleasure they no longer bring him any satisfaction. Without his beloved addiction to comfort him, Valentine is living in a nightmare. When he is jumped by a junkie at a metro station he throws him before the incoming train and takes a deep drag from his cigarette… The pleasure returns, stronger and more enveloping then ever before. The sensation is so great, that it could drive a smoker to murder…
Laurain’s Smoking Kills is part biting satire about our health obsessed society, part noirish character study and part grotesque black comedy. All these pieces together should make for a compelling story, but unfortunately despite the original theme of the book it doesn’t quite fit together. The main problem of the novel is the pacing, Smoking Kills starts off strongly, with a humoured reminiscence of the autodiegetic narrator about his life before the murders. It takes Laurain about 30 pages to get all the prerequisite parts for a good detective story established and until this point his insightful character descriptions and laconic reflections on smoke obsession are thoroughly enjoyable, but, unfortunately, the narration continues for over 100 more pages in this manner.
Although the theme is appealing and well written, it just does not carry over 130 pages without a murder and it seems that, at times, Laurain gets lost in his characters and neglects the actual progression of the story. Because of this, Smoking Kills feels a bit flat and it is hard to buy into the air of suspense in the novel. This is also the case because there is no real antagonist, no clever detective or unlikely adversary that opposes the protagonist, on which absurdly enough the narrator reflects himself: “Deep down, I wanted her to feel suspicious and raise her eyebrows in surprise though it would have disrupted all my plans”. When a bit of suspense arises however, it is spoiled by the narrator himself because he insists on giving away what is going to happen next at every opportunity.
As a saving grace, Smoking Kills does convince with dark humour and sharp characterisation and the somewhat flimsy plot is still entertaining, if one possesses a bit of patience or an unhealthy fascination with cigarettes and smoking culture. Although not a masterpiece, Laurain’s novel is still an entertaining read, with a cool and original theme and plenty of dark humour that make for an interesting character study if not a great crime story.
Our reviewer with his poisons of choice.