Review: The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair, Joël Dicker

It is rare to find a novel, much less a piece of crime fiction, that goes on for six hundred pages.  Still, The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair comes in at a fair old gallop.  At its core, this is a thriller but an enjoyable one nonetheless. The dust jacket cheerily announces it as a mixture of ‘Twin Peaks meets Atonement meets In Cold Blood‘ and indeed the parallels to all three are obvious, particularly to Twin Peaks, a television programme which terrified the living daylights out of me.  This novel delivers far fewer jumps but has a similar cast of odd-ball characters, small town peculiarities and at its core the teenage blonde victim who may or may not have been as innocent as she seemed.

This is not simply a whodunnit though, Dicker is also writing about writing.  His central character is Marcus Goldman, a twenty-something first-time novelist who has been hit with a heavy case of writer’s block.  Under pressure from his publisher, his agent and the general public, he seeks aid from his long-time friend, mentor and former college professor, Harry Quebert who himself is a celebrated novelist.  What Marcus does not expect is that he will find inspiration he has craved for so long while working to defend Harry against the charge of having murdered local girl Nola Kellergan over thirty years previously.

Local paper (c) MacLehose press

Each chapter opens with Harry giving Marcus advice about writing a novel, accompanied with a small graphic to show how far we are through the book.  This therefore gives us several very meta-fictional layers; Joël Dicker writes a novel about Marcus Goldman who writes a novel about writing a novel, with extracts from his previous novel and also that of his fictional mentor.  For a piece of fiction that otherwise steers firmly along the lines of standard American noir (despite being originally published in French), this is all very intricate.  Marcus discovers that the then thirty year-old Harry had been having an affair with fifteen year-old Nola in the months before her death shortly before her body is dug up from underneath Harry’s hydrangea bushes and from then on, he is apparently the only person prepared to stand up for his friend as the entire nation turns against him.

It is hard to imagine the public outcry if a man feted as the world’s greatest living writer (though there are so many of them in fiction) was accused of murder, having definitely confessed to a relationship with the under-aged victim.  To add an additional cherry to the mess, it transpires that Harry’s best-known novel was in fact written for Nola; Harry admits that he was traumatised by Nola’s disappearance, that he never forgot her, never recovered and never loved again.  There is a certain flavour of Stieg Larsson about the premise as Marcus does his best to uncover the truth about what happened on August 30 1975.

Joël Dicker

In trying to write about a crime that is ‘real’, the fictional Marcus struggles to separate the truth from the falsehood.  People forget, people hold grudges and people move on.  He gives words to characters speaking thirty years previously and inevitably this leads to difficulties.  There was something unsavoury about Marcus, the arrogant young New York writer, who cast off his college mentor when things were going well, then ran to him when he found himself blocked.  Marcus’ mother calls him frequently, she is a cruel caricature of a Jewish mother but we are only meeting her through Marcus.  Her true self has been stifled.  By making it clear that he is the writer, Marcus inadvertently lets us see that his work could never truly off the truth about the Harry Quebert affair, such a goal was always doomed.

I was disappointed to see another young blonde girl die horribly – the volume of unpleasant female deaths in fiction both in televised and written for continues at an unstoppable rate and it is indicative of our continuing wider societal problems addressing misogyny.  It is around fifteen years since Joss Whedon created the character of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in an attempt to redress the balance and ten since Lisbeth Salander emerged to fight back, surely it is time for writers to find fresher ideas.  Nola emerged as a more complex character although I still felt that her motivations remained the most opaque, indeed all of the female character were rather two-dimensional.

Original French cover

This is not a perfect novel, Marcus’ investigation runs a little too smoothly, more like a Jessica Fletcher than a Sherlock Holmes.  Marcus calls round to people’s houses and asks them outright questions, he wanders upstairs and pokes about while he is pretending to use the toilet.  It is not very subtle.  Some of the dialogue is rather ropey but then that is part of what one expects from detective fiction.  Usually I expect a text to feel slightly drained when I am reading in translation but The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair still held on to its energy and indeed it is hard to imagine the drama set in France.  The French press are less hysterical about moral failings for one thing.

The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair cleaned up multiple awards and found widespread acclaim.  I found it a compelling and at times disconcerting read.  There was no character who I truly warmed to and yet I was very keen to find out what happened to them.  The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair was about a search for a wider truth of who Harry Quebert was; he was the man who Marcus had truly wanted to be but by the end of the novel, his discovery had not brought him what he sought.  Indeed, every character appeared at one point or other to be punished for that which they had not done but to have escaped justice for that which they had.  As the novel draws to a graceful close, Marcus is allowed to walk into the sunset, as every hero at the end of a thriller should.  Still, this was a very high-quality thriller and I shall be observing Mr Dicker’s career with great interest.

 

four-stars
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I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker
Published by Quercus Publishing on May 1st 2014
Genres: Fiction, Mystery & Detective, General, Thrillers, Political
Pages: 688
Goodreads
ISBN: 9781743531112


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