FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

How to Write an Instant Bestseller

How’s this for luck?  Joel Dicker—a 28-year-old Swiss author—writes a novel about a writer writing a blockbuster, and his own book, The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair, becomes an international success.  Written in French, Dicker’s novel sold nearly a million copies when it was published two years ago.  The translation rights have been sold to 32 countries, and finally the book is available in English.  Aren’t you just a tiny bit jealous of Dicker’s success?  Most surprising of all: do readers want to read a novel about a writer who is so blocked and can’t find a subject for his next book?  (This is Dicker’s second novel and also the second novel for his “blocked” writer/narrator: Marcus Goldman.)  To really rub it in your face (if you’re an American writer), The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair has an American setting, with zilch scenes in the author’s native country or Europe.  Rather amazing.  In fact, a success story reminiscent of Stieg Larsson, with whom Joel Dicker has been compared.

So here’s what happens to Marcus Goldman:  “In the spring of 2008, about a year and a half after I had become the new star of American literature, something happened that I decided to bury deep in my memory: I discovered that my college professor, Harry Quebert—sixty-seven years old and one of the most respected writers in the country—had been romantically involved with a fifteen-year-old girl when he was thirty-four.  That happened during the summer of 1975.”  Marcus can’t ignore the incident because Harry is suddenly charged with the young girl’s murder, who
dickerdisappeared all those years earlier, and whose bones have recently been dug up in Harry’s yard, along with a copy of his most famous novel.  Marcus does not believe that his mentor is guilty—although almost everyone else in the town appears to—so he goes to Somerset, Massachusetts, hoping that he can discover who killed Nola Kellergan, write about it, and no longer suffer from writer’s block.

It’s a sensational story, imaginatively related in numbered chapters that decline in value instead of increase.  As Marcus’ probings lead him deeper into the community’s secrets (supposedly, totally conventional people but, in fact, a hotbed of frustrations and neuroses), Dicker does what every gifted crime writer does: he makes the reader slowly realize that there are any number of potential killers of the young girl, who—it also turns out—was not so innocent or so conventional herself.  It’s first-rate deception on Dicker’s part, shifting clues, canceling one out and replacing it with another, as he slowly zeroes in on what actually happened.  And—miracle of miracles—Marcus gets his bestseller.  Or so you think—only to be surprised again and again.  The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is a massive book but (after a somewhat quaint beginning), you’ll find yourself reading faster and faster.  Dicker has clearly mastered the art of creating suspense.

There is much more to praise.  If the publisher didn’t tell us Dicker’s nationality, you would assume he’s an American.  He understands small town American life and spent his summers when he was growing up in and around Bar
Harbor, so he’s past his bona fides on American culture.  Moreover, that understanding of American small-town life results in numerous astute observations about an era most of us have long forgotten, such as this one after Nola Kellergan’s disappearance: “The front doors of all the houses were locked, and at nightfall the town’s men, organized into citizen patrols, walked the streets to protect their neighborhoods and their families.  Most of them carried baseball bats; a few had their shotguns. They said they would not hesitate to shoot if necessary.”

In Marcus’ own words, these observations become increasingly poignant: “One day in late August, a fifteen-year-old girl was murdered in Somerset.  Her name was Nola Kellergan.  Every account of her you hear will describe her as being full of life and dreams….  This is the story of parents who did not wish to see the truth about their child….  This is the story of a rich young man who, acting thuggishly in his youth, destroyed the dreams of another young man, and was forever haunted by what he had done….  This is the story of a man who dreamed of becoming a great writer, and who was slowly consumed by his ambition.” To which I might add: This is the story a young Swiss writer who quickly mastered his craft and has already enjoyed enormous critical success.

But, wait, that’s not the last line in this review.  As is often true with thrillers, some of the events become a little far-fetched, straining credibility. Too many of the younger characters (and there are several I have not mentioned) have an overwhelming gosh-ah-golly innocent side to them.  I don’t know if some of the rather corny dialogue is Dicker’s or his translator’s.  Nevertheless, you might want to pack a copy of The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair along with your other beach paraphernalia.  Assuming, that is, you still go to the beach and assuming that the beach is still there.

Joel Dicker: The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair

Trans. by Sam Taylor

Penguin, 643 pp., $18

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

Weekend Edition
December 07, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Steve Hendricks
What If We Just Buy Off Big Fossil Fuel? A Novel Plan to Mitigate the Climate Calamity
Jeffrey St. Clair
Cancer as Weapon: Poppy Bush’s Radioactive War on Iraq
Paul Street
The McCain and Bush Death Tours: Establishment Rituals in How to be a Proper Ruler
Jason Hirthler
Laws of the Jungle: The Free Market and the Continuity of Change
Ajamu Baraka
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70: Time to De-Colonize Human Rights!
Andrew Levine
Thoughts on Strategy for a Left Opposition
Jennifer Matsui
Dead of Night Redux: A Zombie Rises, A Spook Falls
Rob Urie
Degrowth: Toward a Green Revolution
Binoy Kampmark
The Bomb that Did Not Detonate: Julian Assange, Manafort and The Guardian
Robert Hunziker
The Deathly Insect Dilemma
Robert Fisk
Spare Me the American Tears for the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi
Joseph Natoli
Tribal Justice
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Macdonald Stainsby
Unist’ot’en Camp is Under Threat in Northern Canada
Senator Tom Harkin
Questions for Vice-President Bush on Posada Carriles
W. T. Whitney
Two Years and Colombia’s Peace Agreement is in Shreds
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Ramzy Baroud
The Conspiracy Against Refugees
David Rosen
The Swamp Stinks: Trump & Washington’s Rot
Raouf Halaby
Wall-to-Wall Whitewashing
Daniel Falcone
Noam Chomsky Turns 90
Dean Baker
An Inverted Bond Yield Curve: Is a Recession Coming?
Nick Pemberton
The Case For Chuck Mertz (Not Noam Chomsky) as America’s Leading Intellectual
Ralph Nader
New Book about Ethics and Whistleblowing for Engineers Affects Us All!
Dan Kovalik
The Return of the Nicaraguan Contras, and the Rise of the Pro-Contra Left
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Exposing the Crimes of the CIAs Fair-Haired Boy, Paul Kagame, and the Rwandan Patriotic Front
Jasmine Aguilera
Lessons From South of the Border
Manuel García, Jr.
A Formula for U.S. Election Outcomes
Sam Pizzigati
Drug Company Execs Make Millions Misleading Cancer Patients. Here’s One Way to Stop Them
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Agriculture as Wrong Turn
James McEnteer
And That’s The Way It Is: Essential Journalism Books of 2018
Chris Gilbert
Biplav’s Communist Party of Nepal on the Move: Dispatch by a Far-Flung Bolivarian
Judith Deutsch
Siloed Thinking, Climate, and Disposable People: COP 24 and Our Discontent
Jill Richardson
Republicans Don’t Want Your Vote to Count
John Feffer
‘Get Me Outta Here’: Trump Turns the G20 into the G19
Domenica Ghanem
Is Bush’s Legacy Really Much Different Than Trump’s?
Peter Certo
Let Us Argue Over Dead Presidents
Christopher Brauchli
Concentration Camps From Here to China
ANIS SHIVANI
The Progress of Fascism Over the Last Twenty Years
Steve Klinger
A Requiem for Donald Trump
Al Ronzoni
New Deals, From FDR’s to the Greens’
Gerald Scorse
America’s Rigged Tax Collection System
Louis Proyect
Praying the Gay Away
Rev. Theodore H. Lockhart
A Homily: the Lord Has a Controversy With His People?
David Yearsley
Bush Obsequies
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail