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Dicker, Joel - 'The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair' (translated by Sam Taylor)
Hardback: 624 pages (May 2014) Publisher: MacLehose Press ISBN: 0857053094

THE TRUTH ABOUT THE HARRY QUEBERT AFFAIR by young Swiss author Joel Dicker is a sprawling US-set murder mystery that hinges on the relationship between two mildly implausible best-selling literary writers, the young Marcus Goldman, and his mentor, Harry Quebert. At the beginning of the book, Marcus is struggling with writer's block, after his first novel has been a ticket to fame, and fortune, mainly manifesting in women, riches, a fancy apartment and a serious case of writer's block. He takes a break from the celebrity lifestyle hoping that a stay with his mentor Quebert at his seaside house, Goose Cove, near the small town of Somerset, New Hampshire, will inspire him. After all, Quebert wrote his masterpiece, 'The Origin of Evil', in Somerset.

But Marcus remains blocked, and a nose around Quebert's study turns up the disquieting news that Quebert's greatest work The Origin of Evil a tale of star-crossed lovers was inspired by an illicit relationship with a local 15 year old, Nola Kellergan. On his return to New York Marcus receives further shocking news that Quebert has been arrested on suspicion of murdering Nola Kellergan. Nola's body was found buried in the garden at Goose Cove together with a copy of the manuscript of The Origin of Evil.

Marcus is determined to clear Quebert's name, and hotfoots it back to Somerset to stay at Goose Cove, to carry out his own investigations into Nola's disappearance. In Somerset, Marcus' social life, as that of Quebert forty years earlier, centres on Clark's diner. Clark's diner is run by Jenny, who despite being married to a local police officer, has had a decades long unrequited love for Quebert. Marcus somehow manages to win over the understandably wary police officer in charge of the Kellergan case, Perry Gahalowood, and ends up investigating with him. Meanwhile, Quebert gradually divulges his version of events to Marcus, constrained by the time limits posed by prison visits. All this fresh information about Nola's disapperance gives Marcus a neat solution to the problem of still owing his publisher a follow up book; he can turn his hand to true crime, by writing about the Harry Quebert affair.

But Marcus' digging up of the past is not welcomed by all. Marcus is sent anonymous threatening letters warning him off, and the locals, Nola's father and even Quebert are rather irate when some of the lurid extracts from Marcus' book are leaked to the media, given the unflattering portrayal of Nola and the town in general. Even though the town and Quebert turn against him, Marcus is determined to carry on writing. As he doesn't know what the ending of his book will be the last few hundred pages proceed at a dizzying pace full of twists and turns and misdirections as to the identity of the murderer.

THE TRUTH ABOUT HARRY QUEBERT is fortunately, rather more readable than its “literary thriller” tag would indicate, and is a by and large enjoyable semi-satirical romp of a US-style small-town noir novel. The plotting and handling of multiple timelines is handled very well. The main character, Marcus Goldman, mostly rings true, as a neurotic perfectionist who has image-managed his way through school and college, deliberately refusing an Ivy League place to study at Burrows, where he can be a big fish in a small pond. Quebert himself is a rather more difficult man to root for – notwithstanding the obvious ethical issues of his relationship with a fifteen-year-old girl, he comes over as somewhat pretentious, self-centred and mendacious. Harry's writing lessons that punctuate the book feel about as authentic as a fortune cookie.

The book covers some challenging themes in showing the dark side of small town life. Dicker doesn't stint from casting an eye over child abuse, paedophilia, mental illness, disability and corruption. Unfortunately this serious material isn't always dealt with in a particularly nuanced or sensitive way, possibly due to the writer's relative youth, and the larger than life picaresque tone of the novel. Some of the characterisation of the more minor characters (in particular of Luther, a disabled man with a speech impairment) is unsubtle and potentially offensively stereotypical.

Overall I found this an enjoyable, readable page turner, but more of a beach read than the great work of literature that the hype would imply.

Laura Root, England
August 2014

More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.

last updated 31/08/2014 11:16