“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.
Wednesday, July 2, 2014
Review: THE TRUTH ABOUT THE HARRY QUEBERT AFFAIR by Joël Dicker
The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair (MacLehose, €14.99), the second novel from Swiss author Joël Dicker, although his first to be translated into English, is the latest thriller to suggest that an obsession with books can prove fatal. It opens with 28-year-old author Marcus Goldman enjoying a celebrity lifestyle in New York courtesy of his bestselling, critically acclaimed debut novel. At least, Marcus appears to be enjoying the life of a literary superstar: the toast of Manhattan’s elite, he is rich, famous and the most eligible bachelor in town. The truth is that Marcus should have begun his second novel a long time ago, but finds himself, with a deadline fast approaching, suffering from a severe case of writer’s block.
Desperate to get back into his writing routine, Marcus contacts his former college professor and writing mentor, Harry Quebert. Now living in splendid isolation in the remote New Hampshire town of Somerset, Harry Quebert was acclaimed a genius and the leading light of his generation when he published The Origins of Evil in the mid-1970s. Harry urges Marcus to abandon New York and come to Somerset, to find the peace of mind he needs to write.
Shortly after Marcus arrives in Somerset, the remains of a young girl are dug up on Harry’s property. When the body is identified as that of Nola Kellergan, a 15-year-old girl who went missing in Somerset in 1975, Harry confesses to Marcus that he had been in a relationship with Nola when she disappeared; when it is discovered that the skeleton is clutching a hand-written manuscript of The Origins of Evil, Harry is arrested and charged with Nola Kellergan’s murder.
The book-within-a-book game doesn’t end there; determined to clear his friend’s name, Marcus embarks on an investigation in tandem with police detective Perry Gahalawood, planning to publish the results of his findings as a book called The Harry Quebert Affair.
A publishing sensation even before its translation into English – it has already sold in excess of two million copies, with translation rights sold for 32 countries – The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is being described as a ‘literary thriller’, and has been compared to Jonathan Franzen and Philip Roth. This is, presumably, on the basis that it is so firmly embedded in the publishing industry – a novel narrated by an author, investigating the literary origins of a famous author’s novel, all the while writing a book about his investigations. Further, each chapter is prefaced with a short dialogue between the younger Marcus Goldman and his mentor Harry Quebert, in which Harry offers his rules for writing.
Despite its extensive engagement with writers and the business of writing, however, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is by no means a literary thriller. Its prose is neither elegant nor eloquent, and while language often suffers in translation, it’s worth noting that the translator here, Sam Taylor, also translated Laurent Binet’s superb HHhH.
That said, it’s only fair to say that Joël Dicker isn’t responsible for how his novel is marketed, and that the book doesn’t read as if it were written for a literary audience. Its take on writer’s block, for example, is the unsophisticated notion of an author staring for weeks on end at a blank page, or feverishly scrawling the same word over and over again. A novel is routinely declared ‘great’ or ‘a masterpiece’ while its author is still halfway through its first draft; the story is chock-a-block with reversals of fortune and explosively dramatic reveals rather than the subtly nuanced characterisations and narrative developments we have come to expect from John le Carré and similar masters of the literary thriller.
Indeed, from very early on it’s clear that Dicker’s ambition is to write a pacy, melodramatic pot-boiler. The rustic New England setting is deftly sketched in, but otherwise realism is at a premium: the depiction of the publishing industry errs on the grotesque side of parody, for example, while it’s highly unlikely, to say the least, that a hardboiled New England cop would agree to allow a bestselling novelist hijack his murder investigation with the stated intention of establishing an alleged child murderer’s innocence. Characters fall in love at the drop of a manuscript, and there are enough skeletons in closets to dance a conga down Main Street. The crucial revelation that drives the novel’s final stages, meanwhile, appears to have been parachuted in from another kind of novel entirely.
By that point, however, and having already negotiated a couple of thriller’s worth of improbable twists and turns, you’re likely to be conditioned to forgive Joël Dicker virtually any kind of narrative extravagance. The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is thriller escapism writ large, irrepressibly exuberant storytelling that tramples realism underfoot as it rattles along at a thunderous pace.
Yet for all its clunky dialogue and lurid melodrama, there is an undeniably endearing quality to Marcus Goldman’s – and possibly even Joël Dicker’s – faith in the genre’s fundamental conceit, that whimsical but tempting notion that justice can be served and the world made better if only we believe strongly enough in the redemptive power of truth. And once the book is finished and put back in the beach-bag, or stored in the overhead locker, what remains with the reader is the novel’s quiet heart, the heartbreaking poignancy of the image on which it all turns, that of the body of a murdered 15-year-old girl uncovered in a shallow grave and still clutching, three decades after her death, a beloved handwritten manuscript. ~ Declan Burke
This review was first published in the Irish Times.