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
disappeared 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: firstname.lastname@example.org.