Written by Joël Dicker, translated by Sam Taylor — This thriller arrives with a lot of hype. It also has the usually reassuring presence of imprint MacLehose Press, which specialises in translated fiction from Pierre Lemaitre, Antonin Varenne and, of course, Stieg Larsson.
The book is about an American author, his literary protégé, and a dead teenage girl whose body’s discovered after 33 years. It’s set entirely in the US, switching between 1975 and 2008 in the build-up to Obama’s election win, though Joël Dicker is a Swiss author who wrote the original novel in French. It’s been a bestseller in Europe, is being translated into 37 languages, and has enjoyed a lot of buzz among some sections of the literati ahead of its UK publication.
However, any suggestion that The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is a Great American Novel in the style of a crime thriller is wide of the mark. Despite the 650-page volume’s ambitious book-within-a-book structure and a tricksy, self-aware style, Dicker has produced a readable yarn that doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny in terms of the plotting or the quality of the prose.
His story is set in the fictional New England town of Aurora, which is hit by scandal when celebrated local author Harry Quebert is arrested on a murder rap, following the discovery of the body of 15-year-old Nola Kellergan, who went missing in the summer of 1975. A middle-aged woman was murdered on the same day in a related incident, though Dicker’s characters show no interest in that unsolved crime. They are far more concerned with the revelation of an illicit relationship between Harry and Nola, which becomes a national scandal when it emerges that his breakthrough novel, The Origin of Evil, was inspired by an underage lover.
Dicker’s depiction of their relationship is oddly prudish, which somehow makes it even creepier. And the romantic excerpts from The Origin of Evil are laughably bad, especially as we’ve been given to believe that the gushy prose was supposed to have been written by an American writer on a par with Philip Roth or Saul Bellow.
The real romance – or bromance – of the book is between Quebert and the protagonist, Marcus Goldman, a young hotshot author with writer’s block. In 2008, Goldman visits the 67-year-old Quebert at his isolated retreat in Aurora, where the older writer remained – apparently waiting for Nola to return. The literary discussions between Marcus and Harry, his former mentor, essentially involve each writer telling the other how great they are, which gets tedious as we have no evidence of their literary genius. Dicker’s portrayal of American publishing also seems awry. Would an executive really threaten to sue a successful writer for everything he’s got for failing to complete his second novel 18 months after his debut?
If the literary element of this novel fails to convince, at least the thriller is readable and gripping, if largely implausible. In trying to prove his friend’s innocence, Marcus manages to find all kinds of leads the police have missed and his investigation soon becomes the subject of his next bestseller. The case has cured his writer’s block, although the locals aren’t too happy about him poking around. As well as the residents of Aurora, the list of suspects includes a wealthy businessman and his facially injured chauffeur, whose speech impediment is written with a ridiculous jumble of letters that jars every time he makes an appearance. In fact, much of Dicker’s dialogue is unconvincing.
Like many serviceable crime thrillers, this book sets up a suspect then moves onto the next one, although Dicker’s misdirection is often maladroit. Ultimately, the plotting becomes shakier in a thriller that’s lacking in logic and rigour, although you’ll undoubtedly read to the end.
The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is nowhere near as good as last year’s crossover crime hit Gone Girl. And there are far more intelligent meta-thrillers, such as the chilling Tony & Susan by Austin Wright. Dicker clearly has a desire to tell big, thrilling stories and this will certainly satisfy anyone looking for an undemanding beach read. Just don’t believe the hype.
The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is released on 1 May.
CFL Rating: 2 Stars