Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Joel Dicker made quite a splash in the world of literature a few years ago when he captured numerous literary prizes, most of them for his novel The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. This book takes us deep into an investigation led by the protege of a famous author accused of having murdered a girl thirty-three years ago. The reason? Her remains were recently unearthed alongside an old copy of the manuscript which defined the author’s career.
Table of contents
Joel Dicker Sows the Seeds of Mystery
If we are to look at the overall state of literature today, it would seem the value of life ventures on a diminishing curve, with death and violence coming at a dime a dozen these days. From one perspective I can certainly understand it: we, the readers, have largely become desensitized to some of the uglier reaches of human nature and authors are trying to push their imagination to the limits to compensate.
On the other hand however, I believe we’re coming close to a full circle, in a certain sense at least. The overabundance of death has made me increasingly hopeful for a story where life is treated with the sanctity it once was, where a single demise is given all the importance it truly deserves. After all, a compelling murder mystery isn’t measured in terms of how many cadavers it produces, but rather how interesting the story surrounding them is. That’s when I stumbled on The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker, a book which did indeed take me back to those coveted days.
The premise for the story is quite simple and straightforward. We are presented with the titular Harry Quebert, the sole suspect in the murder of a fifteen-year-old girl, Nola Kellergan, which took place some thirty-three years ago. The reason for it? The summer when she disappeared is when Harry fell in love with her as a fifteen-year-old boy… and even more damning, her remains were unearthed alongside the original manuscript for the author’s defining novel.
Under the eye of an entire nation gripped by the tragedy of the story, Harry can really only rely on the help of his most gifted protege, Marcus Goldman. Suffering from writer’s block, Marcus turns himself to solving this case in an attempt to clear his mentor’s name. Needless to say though, in an old and complicated case such as this one, few things are how they seem and many revelations are just waiting to see the light of day.
Nobody knows he’s a writer. It’s other people who tell you.― Joel Dicker, The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair
The Sea of Red Herrings
As with any classically-structured murder mystery, I feel it only appropriate to begin our review by examining the plot itself and how much it succeeds at captivating the reader’s attention. Personally-speaking, I was always a fan of mysteries which take us decades into the past as they always provide a fair amount of room for believable twists and turns to help keep us engaged.
That’s more or less the case with this novel, with there being more plot twists than I can ultimately count. While some of them certainly have the intended impact and draw deeper into the story, others feel a bit superfluous as they don’t add much to the story other than a bit of misdirection. Due to their sheer amount, as a reader I couldn’t really get invested in any line of personal investigation based on the events I was presented. Though it sure makes for a ride full of the unexpected, I would have personally preferred a bit more stability.
I feel this might be the most polarizing aspect of the book, as I personally know a few people with an opinion contrary to mine on this subject; as long as the ride is exciting and keeps you engaged in the plot, what does it matter if it twists a little too much? Ultimately, this isn’t something which makes or breaks the novel, but as a reader it’s something you must be aware of when heading in should it conflict with your personal preferences.
Life is a long drop down, Marcus. The most important thing is knowing how to fall.― Joel Dicker, The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair
A Chat Between Authors
Just as a brief reminder of the context The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is taking place in, Harry Quebert is himself a famous author, while his protege, Marcus Goldman, yearns to write that one ultra-meaningful book and trampoline himself to greatness. In-between the actual chapters are very short flashback segments where the teacher guides and instructs his pupil, and in my opinion, it was one of the more interesting elements in the book.
As an author myself (The Blackened Threshold, Harry’s Horizon), I couldn’t help but relate to many of the problems Marcus was facing in terms of his craft. His burning desire to write something unforgettable clashes with his youth and inherent inexperience; as a result, he cannot cope with the fact that he can’t simply jump to the proverbial moon, he must climb there.
At times these little chapters essentially turn into Quebert teaching Marcus some painful realities not only about life as an author, but in some cases, about life in a more general sense. I especially enjoyed the part where Quebert explained that life itself is a long way down, and that anyone who wants to live better learn how to fall. I’m certain anyone can find something applicable to their own existence amidst the bits and pieces of wisdom scattered all over the place.
When the discussions are centred on the art of writing, I can’t say with any certainty how interesting they would be to people who don’t write. However, I am confident they will be of at least some interest to anyone who has an interest in literature, at least enough to be reading this book. Personally though, I took a few pieces of Quebert’s (or, if we’re being realistic, Joel Dicker‘s) advice to heart, and they haven’t failed me yet.
Another rather useful aspect of these short (about half a page long, usually) in-between chapters, is that they provide us with some additional insight into our main characters. We learn more about how they think, what they’ve evolved from over the years, and if nothing else, they help us get closer and much more invested in them than we would’ve been otherwise.
Teetering on the Edge of Realism
Moving aside from the plot itself, at least for long enough not to run into another twist, we have the second element which carries the story forward, and those are the characters… or more precisely, the interactions between them. Now, before going forward, I must address the fact this book was translated from French. Personally I am fortunate enough to be able to read the book in its native language, but judging from what I have heard from others who read it in English, the translation leaves something to be desired, especially in regards to the dialogue.
While this isn’t a complaint addressed towards the original version of the book on my behalf, there are many who note the conversations sound unnatural in English. I believe part of the problem is the translation was much more literal than meaningful, in turn creating unfamiliar and unnatural-feeling sentences.
In other words, if you can read it in French, this will not be a problem in the slightest. However, if you will read it in English be prepared to work through some rougher patches. As far as the characters themselves go, I had a bit of trouble in taking them seriously, mostly because of two reasons. First of all, Harry Quebert seems like he never grew up from that summer when he was fifteen years old, and while I will concede some people never do grow up, it became a tad annoying to witness his irrational actions.
Second of all, the policeman investigating the case takes on the help twenty-six year-old novelist as his partner without much thought to it, which just seemed like a rushed way of getting the story moving. I enjoyed the characters much more once I started viewing them as a bit of a parody on the genre, at least to some extent. If anything, they ultimately added some small doses of humour and ridiculousness to a dark story which needed some breaks along the way.
|Jan. 1 2014
The Final Verdict
With all being said and done, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker isn’t exactly a perfect novel, having to contend with problems in the translation department as well as the characters themselves. Nevertheless, I would still recommend this to murder mystery fans for one simple reason: it’s an entertaining read.
The plot moves along quickly and never leaves you bored for a moment, always pulling in a new direction providing enough of a distraction from the negative elements. It’s not perfect, but not every book has to be; sometimes it’s just about whether or not you’re worth reading, and this novel certainly is.
Joel Dicker is a Swiss novelist from Geneva with a Masters of Law from the University of Geneva in 2010. At the age of 25 his story titled Les Derniers Jours de nos Pères won him the Geneva’s Writers’ Prize. His subsequent book, titled The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair was translated into over 32 languages and was awarded the 2012 Grand Prix du Roman de l’Académie française as well as the Prix Goncourt des Lyceens.