Review published on June 13, 2018.
This is a real tonic for the soul. I read so many dark, sometimes unremittingly dark, novels (of course, by choice), a little light relief is welcome, and Smoking Kills provides it. This novel is genuinely funny. Naturally, the title gives it away from the start; Smoking Kills is a very black comedy, it is a lot of wicked fun.
The behaviour of Fabrice Valentine was clearly an unforeseen side effect of the introduction of the smoking ban in France in 2007. As far as he is concerned it’s a heinous law. To paraphrase our anti-hero and narrator, Valentine: he has led an ordinary life up to this point but a man can only take so much. Why didn’t people consider the arguments against the ban? Despite warnings of the increased workload for street cleaners, smokers are still forced out of the offices and their workplaces on to the pavements. To top it all his job is threatened. Anything that happens here after is the fault of the cigarettes.
For Valentine, it’s like the 1946 Act to shut down the Maison Close, the legal brothels, forcing the girls to ply their trade on the streets, where they are at the mercy of the worse kind of pimps. However, not many people seem to be buying into his arguments. Valentine works for HBC Consulting, the largest head-hunter firm in France, and blissfully, the ban is not instantly enacted by the company. Valentine and his colleagues, Veronique Beauffancourt and Jean Gold, retain their habit in front of their intimidated colleagues. Then the new senior head-hunter poisons the office environment against them. A young worker in the canteen has it banned there too, there are notices on the walls. An appeal to the boss, Hubert Beauchamps-Chavellier, meets this response: it’s the law. Valentine’s wife agrees; he is becoming isolated. Smoking is not just a hobby for Valentine, it runs in the family. It was even a tragic part of his father’s death abroad. Connected to his first love and several important moments in his life (he will fill the reader in on these as the novel progresses). Valentine met his wife at an art exhibition at the Pompidou. He’s a self-admitted philistine, he is slagging off the work before committing a faux pas that horrifies Sidonie Gravier, one of the curators. Yet, some how love blossoms.
Eighteen years later and Sidonie, a woman he has nothing in common with, appears to be far too friendly with a young contemporary artist. Valentine decides he’ll have to go. A brief flirtation with giving up smoking has dire consequences. When Valentine discovers the satisfaction of smoking can be dramatically enhanced by committing murder he really gets carried away. Will they be able to stop him as the body count rises?
Laurain has tremendous fun with his subject; from philosophical musings and witty asides to justifying backstory. Yet there is still a strong element of classic French noir here. The love of the absurd is a trait common to the best French crime writing, it’s just that Laurain dials up the humour, it’s played up for all it’s worth. Valentine’s murderous campaign is the ultimate in wish fulfilment. How many people forced to give up smoking or take their fags outside didn’t dream of getting even with society? We all go over the top about some issue in life, right? Valentine’s demented actions, which are entirely rational in his own mind, occasion a brilliant farce. I was reminded about the articles David Hockney wrote on the smoking ban and the witty letters he sent to the Guardian when the ban came into force in Britain. His rants against the ban were hilarious, but also tongue in cheek. Laurain has gone several steps further in creating a character who really doesn’t have an off switch. Valentine wants to reek revenge for his life falling apart, the smoking ban, his job and the parlous state of his marriage.
All original and playful and entertaining. Suitable for smokers and non-smokers!
Paul Burke 5/4
Smoking Kills by Antoine Laurain
Gallic Books 9781910477540 pbk Jun 2018
Author meets Reviewer: Martyn Waites meets Paul Burke