Murder mystery obscures the schlocking truth
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,