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Sister Mary Murderous

Favorite genres are traditional mystery, police procedurals, espionage, Eurocrime, literary fiction and nonfiction history, especially WW2 and Cold War.  I write about crime fiction at Read Me Deadly (www.readmedeadly.com)

Hey, it won multiple literary awards in France! (where they think Jerry Lewis is a genius)

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair - Joël Dicker

Joël Dicker: The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair


I only have two problems with this book: (1) the ludicrous and lurid plot, and (2) the stunningly amateurish writing. It was increasingly painful, but I read every bit of the book, mostly because I just couldn't believe this could be the same book that has been such a huge best-seller abroad. I figured it had to transform itself into something great, but if anything, it just got worse with each passing page.

I'll keep the plot summary brief, since you can read that just about anywhere. The protagonist, Marcus Goldman, is a young writer who hit it big with his first novel and is now hopelessly blocked. Under tremendous pressure from his agent and rapacious publisher, he flees to the seaside town of Somerset, New Hampshire, to get help from his college mentor, the literary lion Harry Quebert.

Shortly after Marcus's visit, Harry is arrested for the murder of a teenage girl, Nola Kellergan, who disappeared over 30 years earlier and whose body has just been found buried under Harry's lawn, along with the original manuscript of Harry's most famous novel, The Origin of Evil. Marcus decides he must investigate to clear Harry, and submits to his publisher's pressure to write a book about what is being called the Harry Quebert Affair.

First of all, it's downright creepy that the then 34-year-old Harry had a love affair with a 15-year-old girl.  And he's not the only grown man in town to have a thing for Nola.  We have to read a lot about these age-inappropriate passions, but at least there is a little comedy value in that reading, with deathless prose like this:

"As soon as he saw her, he felt his heart explode. He missed her so much. As soon as she saw him, she felt her heart explode. She had to speak to him."

Unfortunately, those exploding hearts were not fatal. Harry and Nola continue to play their parts in Somerset, a burg whose citizens behave like cartoon versions of that old-time celebration of small-town sin, Peyton Place. There are shrewish wives, henpecked husbands, tongue-tied swains, gossipy diner denizens, a hideously-scarred chauffeur with a speech impediment.  (And, yes, his dialog is presented with the impediment: "Pleave excuve me, Mifter Quebert, I didn't mean to fcare you.  But Mifter Ftern defperately wantf to fee you.") But most of all, there are people with deep dark secrets.

If this description makes the book sound kind of fun, in a campy soap-opera-ish way, I apologize. It isn't.  None of the characters seem to have emotionally progressed beyond Nola's age––which doesn't make all the men lusting after her any more appropriate.  The writing manages to be both purple and uninspired.  I think it's because when the author writes with constant literal and figurative exclamation points, hyperbole and overblown description, the reader soon becomes dulled to it.  Also, Dicker's writing is clichéd and he repeats himself––repeatedly! A good couple of hundred pages could have been edited out of this thing. It would still be bad, but at least there'd be less of it.

At last, in the final one-third or so of the book, we learn what happened to Nola in that summer of 1975. Or do we? Over and over, the mystery appears to reach a resolution, but then we find out that the resolution was wrong.  You soon learn that when the police investigator exclaims something like "we've got it this time!" it's another red herring.  Clearly not a believer in the less-is-more approach, Dicker pulls a few other rabbits out of his hat (in addition to the mystery of Nola), but each trick is about as impressive as nine-year-old learning to be a magician.

Before I posted this review, I decided to try to find out why some people thought this was a great book. I found a couple of print reviewers who talked about what a terrific satire this is of the publishing industry and how interesting it is as a piece of metafiction--because it's a writer (Joël Dicker) writing about a writer (Marcus Goldman) writing about a writer (Harry Quebert).  I also noticed that a disproportionate number of the favorable print reviews seem to have been written by fellow authors.  Over time, I've learned to be leery of those.  Too often, authors feel obligations to agents, publishers or others they may have in common with the author of the book being reviewed.  And authors quite often have different priorities from readers.  In any case, to me, the real satire of the publishing business is that this novel was published at all.  As for metafiction, well, no matter how "meta" this might be, that bit of writerly cleverness can't elevate the terrible writing and plotting into something that serves the reader well.