The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair

by Joël Dicker

I had read reviews about this book and put it on my ‘wishlist’, and then when I saw it at a book sale for £1 I immediately picked it up.  The seller recommended it as well – and that was good enough for me.  Having read it now, I am in two minds about this novel.

Positives:  It is an intriguing whodunnit, and keeps the reader guessing almost to the end.  Many of the characters are stereotypes, but there is enough interest in them, and an ambiguity that leaves you wondering, even about the most apparently innocuous character, “could he/she be the murderer?”.  The relationship between Marcus Goldman and the detective is interesting and plausible – they complement each other’s abilities, and solve the mystery together, and yet maintain a healthy distance almost to the end. The book’s structure is compelling, even if a little forced at times: the older writer and mentor, Harry Quebert, coaches Goldman in bite-sized chunks of advice, chapter by chapter, as the story (and his book) unfolds.  The New England setting is recognisable from Stephen King, Philip Roth and John Updike’s work, and is convincing enough to someone who, like me, has never been there.  I am not qualified to say whether it would convince a New Englander.  After all, the author is Swiss – but as I know only too well, most educated Swiss have the opportunity to spend time in English-speaking countries.  The best thing about this book is the translation: fluid, idiomatic, utterly believable.  Given the North American setting and Sam Taylor’s superb translation, it is quite hard to believe that this book was actually written in French.

Negatives:  The book is too long.  I was totally gripped until about two-thirds of the way through (the length of an average novel) and the last third was a bit of a slog.  Some characters are frankly unbelievable, and these tend to be the female ones. Goldman’s mother is a stereotypical Jewish mom whose only concerns seem to be a desire for her son to be married, and paranoia that he might be gay.  Tamara Quinn is obsessively concerned with her position in society and finding her daughter a suitable match – and yet she manages to run a successful café business which she then passes on to her daughter.  The women in this book, without exception, are not ‘movers and shakers’.  Perhaps this reflects the Swiss culture of the author!  Luther Caleb, a promising young man from a humble background who experiences a brutal and disfiguring attack early in his adult life, is portrayed as dim-witted as well as physically disabled.  Can he really achieve no better position than that of chauffeur, after such a promising start in life?  Perhaps he suffered some brain damage as well as a damaged facial expression and speech defect – but this is never stated, even implicitly.

Critics have made comparisons with Roth, Franzen, Bellow.  I can’t comment on the latter, having – to my shame – never read anything by Saul Bellow.  I don’t see any particular similarity to the Franzen works I have read.  I did read a French review accusing Dicker of, effectively, plagiarising Roth’s The Human Stain.  I haven’t read Roth’s book (which appears to have a very different plot and characters), so can’t comment on whether the college professor/writer relationship bears any similarity.  But even if it does, this can be understood in the acknowledged fact of Dicker’s admiration of the older writer.

Let’s not allow this accusation to spoil our appreciation of what is, after all, an achievement of some quality from Dicker and Taylor.