Sunday Times, 27 April 2014
The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker,
translated by Sam Taylor
MacLehose £20/ebook £13 pp624
The Swiss novelist Joel Dicker is hardly known in this country, but he is about to become the latest literary sensation. His novel, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, has already sold more than 2m copies on the continent. Dicker, who writes in French, has been compared to Stieg Larsson, a comparison that was inevitable after Larsson’s British publisher bought the UK rights. But how does his thriller compare with the Swedish mega-seller?
In terms of subject matter, Dicker’s book has little in common with Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, showing only a cursory interest in gender politics. Indeed, his novel is based around the disappearance of a sexually precocious 15-year-old, Nola, whose character has troubling echoes of another book altogether, Nabokov’s Lolita.
When the novel opens, the girl’s body has just been discovered in a grave at the idyllic seaside property owned by Harry Quebert, a celebrated American novelist. Nola disappeared 33 years ago, traumatising the small New Hampshire town of Somerset — a setting reminiscent of Grace Metalious’s 1950s bestseller Peyton Place. It now appears that Nola and the much older Quebert had an affair, making him the chief suspect in her murder.
The evidence against Quebert includes a manuscript copy of his most famous novel, The Origin of Evil, buried with Nola’s body. Within days the book is being withdrawn from libraries, leaving Quebert in jail and friendless. It is a curious feature of Dicker’s novel that Quebert is terrified of being sentenced to death, even though New Hampshire has not executed anyone since 1939. But his plight brings his friend and former student, Marcus Goldman (now a bestselling novelist), rushing from New York to Somerset.
The novel’s structure is complex and has been described as a book within a book. Goldman has been suffering from writer’s block, but gets over it when he plunges into a nonfiction work to clear Quebert’s name. In large part, Dicker’s novel consists of Goldman’s first-person narrative as he writes a bestseller called The Harry Quebert Affair, but the difference between Goldman’s and Dicker’s titles is a hint that it will not be the final word on the murder.
Goldman and Quebert share a love of boxing, and their relationship is that of sparring partners. The chapters begin with a dialogue in which Quebert offers his disciple rules about writing, but it is impossible to believe that anyone whose speech is so riddled with clichés could possibly be a towering figure of American letters.
If Quebert is a kind of low-rent Norman Mailer, Goldman is an unappealing egomaniac with a stereotypical Jewish mother. Nola’s character, meanwhile, goes through bewildering changes as Dicker recycles myths about child sex abuse before endowing her with an almost saintly selflessness. Most of the action takes place in a town as untouched by the modern world as an Edward Hopper painting, raising questions about how well Dicker knows the country about which he is writing.
The most irritating feature of this spectacularly awful novel, though, is its dependence on increasingly incredible plot twists. Dicker works up to a revelation intended to turn everything on its head, but only if the reader is prepared to overlook Goldman’s failure to ask basic questions about Nola’s background. Far from rivalling Larsson, Dicker writes pure melodrama, and he can’t even claim the searing moral purpose of Peyton Place.