Marcus Goldman may be a best-selling novelist, but he suffers from a serious case of writers block. He needs a murder and a mentor to set him free.
Meet the hero of Swiss author Joel Dicker’s bestselling crime thriller The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair.
With a deadline for his next book imminent, Goldman can’t write a single sentence. Desperately seeking inspiration, he contacts his old college professor, Harry Quebert, considered “one of the greatest authors of the second half of the twentieth century.”
Quebert’s fiction masterpiece, The Origin of Evil, made millions and catapulted the author to international literary stardom. Despite his fame, Quebert lives a reclusive existence in a creaky old house in an obscure New Hampshire town. He has one friend—Goldman—and that’s who he calls from prison after arrest on suspicion of murder. Authorities believe Quebert killed Nola Kellergan, a 15-year-old girl who disappeared 33 years ago. Landscapers uncover the girl’s bones on Quebert’s property alongside a typed manuscript of The Origin of Evil.
Quebert may be a prime suspect, but it turns out he and Nola were lovers—not passing-fancy, younger girl/older man type lovers, but deeply consumed and committed amours planning to run away and live together forever.
Would Quebert really have killed his heart and soul? And if he didn’t kill Nola Kellergan, who did?
Enter Goldman. The writer feels an internal dam begin to crack. He says hello to a new book, bye-bye to writer’s block.
Goldman’s greedy publishers, of course, stand ready to fork over millions of dollars in advances for The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair, Goldman’s proposed book. It promises to be a bigger blockbuster than his first, and audiences across the nation salivate, impatient for a ripping good read.
Goldman’s words flow. Then, as he digs deeper into the steamy secrets of that seemingly idyllic New Hampshire town, the writer discovers nearly everyone in the community has something to hide.
Everyone also seems to have a connection to Nola Kellergan.
Anyone could have killed her.
The 29-year-old author Joel Dicker holds a Masters degree in Law from the University of Geneva, Switzerland, but writing’s apparently been more his thing. He started at age 10, and at age 25 won a Prix des Ecrivains Genevois, Geneva’s prestigious writing award for unpublished manuscripts.
He published his 600-page Harry Quebert Affair in September 2012. Just a few months later, he won the Grand Prix du Roman de l’Académie Francaise. This and other awards have made him one of Europe’s young literary superstars.
Dicker’s knack for creating suspense keeps his opus loping along. He shows an incredible knack for innocuously placed red herrings—a letter here, a painting there, an old tin box, a hotel bill. What do these artifacts mean? Are they clues to the unsolved murder?
Dicker shifts his setting between 1975, the year of Nola’s murder, and 2008, when Goldman investigates the case and begins writing his book. A’ la the early ‘90s TV show Twin Peaks, readers must keep guessing a town’s sordid secrets, revealed by one quirky character after another. Dicker introduces a motorcycle-loving Southern preacher with a righteous taste for loud rock music. We find a gentle giant with a deformed face and a speech impediment. Up the street lives a local socialite hooked on sleeping pills, and a couple of towns away a wealthy philanthropist, possibly gay, with strange motives.
Dicker reads mostly fast and to the point … with a few problem spots to discuss later in the review. He uses simple prose that does not distract from the reading of a complicated story. As Dicker unveils each character’s connections to Nola and Quebert, he exposes multiple, complex layers of Nola’s own history and personality (she’s pretty weird).
Dicker’s book has sold millions of copies worldwide and will be translated into more than 30 languages. In light of the author’s age, The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair seems a great accomplishment.
Alas, his youth also proves the book’s undoing. Dicker tries far too hard to make a basic murder mystery into much more than it is, pulling the book’s punch in the attempt.
For starters, Dicker challenges us with a book … about a book … with yet another book inside. The Russian-doll approach to literature feels like overkill. In fact, to my own taste, more accomplished novelists than Dicker have shot themselves in their navels by writing overtly about writing and writers.
You probably learned in freshman comp most of the purported writing wisdom that Quebert imparts to Goldman here. (Quebert has a list of 31 writing rules. He offers all 31 to readers.) An example: “The first chapter of a book is the most important.”
Is Dicker spoofing writers? The craft? The publishing industry? The mass audiences that make books bestsellers? If not, then Quebert … and Goldman’s admiration of Quebert … appear a little ridiculous, elementary. If we take those 31 pieces of advice as a proxy for Quebert’s writing … well, let’s just say this reviewer would never read The Origin of Evil. (Spoiler alert: If Quebert even wrote the damn thing….)
The many pages Dicker dedicates to telling readers about writing bog down his book. A good many of them—such passages as “two things can make life meaningful: books and love”—feel cringeworthy. Beyond such greeting-card writing advice, how do we react to platitudes like this, when a 15 year-old says, “… what’s the point of living if we’re not allowed to love?”
Goldman’s transparently personal soapbox politics also annoy.
We get it—Dicker hates George Bush, loves Barack Obama. That may work great in France, still smarting from Freedom fries and, we suppose, Freedom poodles. The book became such a super hit in France, in fact, that it won the prestigious Prix Goncourt des Lycéens. But here in the good old U.S.A., the politics feel like yesterday’s baguette. We’ve been there, done that.
The same goes for some characters in the book, especially Goldman’s totally contrived and extremely irritating suburban Jewish mom. Dicker gives Goldman and his mom deep exchanges:
“Mom, if you’d just leave me alone . . .”
“Why do you need to be alone? Do you have a stomachache? Do you need to let off gas? You can let off gas, honey. I’m your mother.”
A yenta may seem like an amusing novelty in France, but she’s likely to be nauseating for a great many American readers.
Dicker wants Nola to appeal as an ingénue and capture our fancies as she captures those of his male characters. But Nola doesn’t have anything particularly smart to say, and we find even less to indicate her alleged beauty. As the story develops, we also learn that she’s pretty seriously deranged. The community has known this all along. So why, then, would anybody (never mind everybody) be nuts about Nola?
Would an erstwhile college professor, an incredible writer like Quebert, really want to elope with this person? Really? Writers have weird obsessions, God knows, but would this one stay besotted with a crazy 15 year-old for three decades? Come on. Not even weird, old J.D. Salinger in his reclusive New England hideaway made plans to elope with a 15-year-old.
Enough. Picking this book apart does exactly the same thing its author did: It makes The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair into much, much more than it is.
Here’s what a reader should know. Dicker writes a good, satisfyingly gory crime thriller. For that, he totally deserves his success. We’ll see a movie of this for sure.
And unless Dicker develops writers block, he’ll write many more … and much better … books.
Savita Iyer-Ahrestani is a freelance writer based in State College, Pennsylvania. Her articles have appeared in Saveur, Vogue (Mumbai, India edition), CNN.com, Business Week, and Dr. Oz’s Youbeauty.com, among others. She co-authored Brandstorm: Surviving and Thriving in the New Consumer-Led Marketplace (Palgrave Macmillan 2012). She’s currently working on a novel.