Mur­der mys­tery ob­scures the schlock­ing truth

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Sophie Quick

The Truth about the Harry Que­bert Af­fair By Joel Dicker MacLe­hose Press, 688pp, $32.99 THERE’S a scene in The Truth about the Harry Que­bert Af­fair in which a young writer dis­cov­ers that the as­tro­nom­i­cal ad­vance he has been of­fered for his sec­ond book is not so much a re­flec­tion of the worth of his man­u­script but a cyn­i­cal ad­ver­tis­ing in­vest­ment. The pub­lisher gives it to him straight: “Pay a guy an NBA or NHL salary to write a book, and you can be sure that ev­ery­one will be talk­ing about him.”

There’s a real-life res­o­nance to these words be­cause in ac­quir­ing the US rights to The Truth about the Harry Que­bert Af­fair, orig­i­nally writ­ten in French by Swiss writer Joel Dicker, Pen­guin is ru­moured to have paid its largest ad­vance ever. Hype around the English-lan-

May 24-25, 2014 guage re­lease of the novel — which is a mur­der mys­tery, as well as a book about a book — is in­tense. It al­ready has been trans­lated into more than 30 lan­guages and has sold one mil­lion-plus copies in France.

Harry Que­bert has been billed as a lit­er­ary thriller but it’s more of a schlocky mur­der mys­tery. There’s noth­ing wrong with that, ex­cept that with the metafic­tional struc­ture (the book within the book) and with Dicker tak­ing satir­i­cal aim at the vul­gar commercial im­per­a­tives of the book pub­lish­ing busi­ness, there’s a heavy layer of self-con­scious­ness to the novel.

This may be too smart by half. Schlock should be as­sessed on its own schlocky terms. But schlock that ridicules schlock — well, that’s ask­ing to be judged on a slightly dif­fer­ent scale.

The story cen­tres on the dis­ap­pear­ance of a 15-year-old girl, Nola Kel­ler­gan, from a scenic town in New Hamp­shire in 1975. Thirty-three years later, fa­mous nov­el­ist Harry Que­bert be­comes the prime sus­pect for her mur­der when Nola’s re­mains are found buried on his nearby property. He falls un­der even deeper sus­pi­cion af­ter con­fess­ing to a se­cret love af­fair with the school­girl vic­tim dur­ing the sum­mer of her dis­ap­pear­ance, when he was 34. Younger writer Mar­cus Gold­man at­tempts to re­vive his flail­ing ca­reer and vin­di­cate Que­bert — his men­tor — by solv­ing the mys­tery of who killed Nola and writ­ing a book on the case.

An elab­o­rate mys­tery un­rav­els with a list of sus­pects that in­cludes a south­ern evan­gel­i­cal pas­tor, as­sorted small-town cops, the mys­te­ri­ous lo­cal mil­lion­aire and — you guessed it — the mil­lion­aire’s chauf­feur, a grotesquely dis­fig­ured mis­fit with a thor­oughly hammy ac­quired speech de­fect (“Pleave ex­cuve me, Mifter Que­bert. I didn’t mean to fcare you.”).

The book is repet­i­tive and some­times stag­ger­ingly im­plau­si­ble. (Gold­man de­lib­er­ately burns some ev­i­dence. Never mind! His de­tec­tive friend still keeps him abreast of de­vel­op­ments.)

But Dicker builds a sat­is­fy­ingly spooky mood and there are plenty of skil­fully con­trived and sen­sa­tional twists, right up to the fi­nal pages. The mys­tery un­folds through Gold­man’s first­per­son ac­count, in­ter­view tran­scripts, ex­cerpts from Gold­man’s book on the case and flash­backs to the time of the mur­der.

But Dicker wants to do much more than deliver an en­ter­tain­ing mur­der mys­tery. The book also touches on themes of friend­ship, writ­ing, celebrity, im­pos­ture and — oddly enough — ro­man­tic love. And that’s the prob­lem: Dicker wants to have it both ways with the il­licit ro­mance at the heart of the book. He wants to cap­i­talise on the sen­sa­tional na­ture of the un­der­age-af­fair premise but, to keep the reader in­vested in Gold­man’s quest to clear Que­bert’s name, can’t let Que­bert seem overly preda­tory.

And so the book is coy, to an ab­surd ex­tent, about the sex­ual el­e­ment of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the man and the school­girl. Were these two do­ing it or not? It’s heav­ily im­plied, but the reader is never quite sure. Does it mat­ter? If not,

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