"You are a-- how shall I put this?-- a modern writer. People like you because you're young and dynamic. And hip. That's what you are-- a hip writer. Nobody expects you to win the Pulitzer Prize; they like your books because they're cool, they're entertaining, and there's nothing wrong with that... you must be aware that some of your popularity comes from being young and good-looking."
--The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair 267-8
Skilled musicians who devote years to their craft could be excused if they disdain the latest pop princess, someone with good looks and connections but little talent who grows rich from a handful of hyped hits. Writers of erotica, typing away in solitude, knowing they'll never find mainstream success, doubtless were a tad peeved when E.L James hit gold with poorly-rewritten sadomasochistic Twilight fanfic. People who have given years of service to political causes might have been taken more aback than most when Donald Trump won a public office of some importance in the United States.
And struggling writers have to be a little bit nonplussed by the runaway success of Joel Dicker's The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair (2012, 2014). The book sold millions, and won both the prestigious Grand Prix du roman de l'Académie française and the secondary-student selected Prix Goncourt des Lycéens. While a Ron Howard-directed movie rumored online never materialized, a TV miniseries soon will, starring Patrick Dempsey, Ben Schnetzer, Damon Wayans Jr., and Virginia Madsen
The novel has some merit, but it's more hype than substance. The publisher was obviously shrewd. Why rewrite what should have gone through multiple revisions, when a hit can be launched, the Swiss/French answer to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo? And that's the sort of thing I'd been hearing, along with comparisons to Twin Peaks and Vladimir Nabokov. Well, okay. Like the late thriller writer Stieg Larsson, Dicker creates a decades-spanning mystery that reveals dark things beneath the surface of everyday life. Like Twin Peaks, the tale twists in unexpected ways. And as in Lolita, some old guy lusts after a sexualized adolescent. What it lacks, however, are Larsson's memorable characters, Twin Peaks' quirky sense of place, or anything approaching Nabokov's prose style.
The book begins well, with an intriguing mystery premise. Back in 1975, a fifteen-year-old girl, Nola, disappeared from a small town in New Hampshire. That same night, the woman who last reported seeing the girl alive was shot. The murder was never solved, and the girl remained missing. Suspicion fell on the outsider, Harry Quebert, a New York writer trying to complete his second novel. The first, self-published, did not fare so well.
Harry came out of that summer with an acclaimed bestseller and a job teaching creative writing. He also purchased the home he had been renting. With no real evidence against him and fame on his side, the townsfolk (they really are the sort of stereotypical, wooden characters who could be called "townsfolk") accepted Harry, and life continued. Harry later mentored Marcus Goldman, a young man who would go on to publish an international bestseller. Our book opens in 2008, with Goldman unable to write a successful follow-up and Harry under arrest. Nola's body was found on his property, buried with the draft of his second, and only really successful, book.
Goldman, convinced his friend is innocent, inserts himself into the investigation. His publisher encourages him, realizing that a true crime book by the young author would put his career back on track.
We travel back and forth through time, seeing events as they unfold from different perspectives. In keeping with the genre, suspects begin falling out of the woodwork, as we learn the truth about Nola, whose secret lives beggar belief. Dicker also gives us metafictional points to ponder: he's writing a book about someone writing a book about an investigation into someone who wrote a book inspired by the murder victim.
The book, then, like other successful pop thrillers-- The Girl on the Train, or Gone Girl-- features an interesting story with a complex construction. It fails on most other counts.
The friendship between Harry and Marcus seems credible, even if Harry's wisdom consists of business-seminar platitudes. Every other character tends towards stereotype. Marcus's mother, who turns up about every five chapters, is a nagging Jewish Mother who appears to have been inspired by popular sitcoms and movies. The remaining characters speak pretty much the same as each other, and woodenly. They act in bizarre and improbable ways that allow for the tortuous mystery to exist, but which often defy any sense of how actual human beings behave. Some of these problems might be blamed on the translation, but most goes back to the source itself.
Then there's the setting. Dicker has made much of his many childhood summers in New England, but his version of American society reads like a parody. Dicker's America feels about as credible as Tarzan's Africa-- though perhaps, as in Tarzan, the exotic, amplified setting forms part of its appeal to Europeans. This is the America they see in the media, a world where each small town contains a diner-full of local characters, gun-toting, brutal police, deranged fundamentalist Christians, rampaging, privilege-protected Ivy Leaguers, and crime at every turn.
The rules of TV police procedure are very much at work here. The investigating detective may trade barbs with Goldman-- as do all mismatched cops in American shows and movies-- but he allows the young writer to participate, Jessica Fletcher-like, even though he's a friend of the leading suspect, and pursuing personal agendas. In another hilarious lapse, a suspect, held in prison and charged, gets released and sees all charges dropped on the word of a forensic handwriting analyst.
Many of these things would be forgiven, if the book was a brief affair. Harry Quebert clocks in at 600+ pages. It can't sustain them. If Agatha Christie had been inclined to write something this salacious, she would have dispensed with it in less than half the length, and the book would have been better for it.
Some sense of the novel's wrongheadedness can be found in the two most important of its several hundred plot twists. Both of these particular twists occur near the end. One is good. One is godawful. Neither the author nor his editors seems to have cared, and both are given equal weight in the story.
The first is intrinsic to story and character. It's a genuine surprise, and it explains some of the unusual behavior. Literally, one character has a secret that he considers more damning than murder. That secret goes to the heart of the mystery, Nola, and the book's metafictional excesses. I've been critical of the novel, but I admire this twist. It's far-fetched, as twists in mysteries often are, but it's not implausible, and it works.
The other concerns a piece of information that neither Goldman nor the chief investigator uncovers until quite late in the story. The problem is, the entire town has this information, and wouldn't be adverse to sharing it. God knows they share everything else, often preceding their effusive testimony with some variation of, I should have said this decades ago.... More importantly, this information necessarily would have been found on many of the documents and articles about the original 1975 case: you know, the sorts of things with which a detective and a writer might familiarize themselves early in the investigations. If this were a real case and someone went to the "Disappearance of Nola Kellergan" discussion at a crime website, they would find this information. Furthermore, in order to keep the characters in the dark, the writer has to have them discuss doing something that any halfway competent investigator would do, but then decide against it, since this particular action would give them this key information they have otherwise, against all logic, missed. These shenanigans serve a twist that does reveal character, but the revelation is forced and it could have been handled differently. In short, the payoff isn't remotely impressive enough to justify the total suspension of disbelief required.
The truth about The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is that the book has a clever but overlong plot, marred by flat stereotypes, forced behavior, and wooden dialogue. In another era, the publishing house would have guided the young writer to make some changes, producing something with some lasting value. Then again, this book sold millions of copies and doubtless will sell millions more when the series hits the TV. As internationally successful songstress Miley Cyrus once thoughtfully sang:
Remember only God can judge ya
Forget the haters 'cause somebody loves ya
--Mike L. Williams II, Pierre Ramon Slaughter, Timothy Thomas, Theron Thomas, Miley Cyrus, Douglas Davis, Ricky Walters, "We Can't Stop."