Book review: The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair by Jöel Dicker (trs by Sam Taylor)


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The Independent Culture

Marcus Goldman is the hotshot young author of a bestselling debut novel. He’s also lonely, and has spent his life doing anything he can in order not to look like a failure – and yet he’s about to be just that, for the deadline for Book Two is approaching, his agent and publisher are banging on the door, and he has nothing for them. He calls up his old friend and mentor, the novelist Harry Quebert, for help. Soon, though, Harry is implicated in the disappearance and murder, 33 years earlier, of a teenage girl, and it would seem that Marcus has accidentally found himself the perfect story.

Nola Kellergan disappeared from her New England home in 1975; now her body has just been found, buried with a typescript of Harry’s novel. He admits to having had an affair with her – kept clandestine because he was in his thirties and she only 15 – but denies the murder. It’s up to Marcus (and the state police) to figure out what actually happened. And then, using the 31 precepts Harry has taught him over the years, to translate this story into a superb book.

Marcus may have a great story, but he struggles to be the great writer both he and Harry think he ought to be. Harry has always been a generous and loyal mentor, teaching Marcus to box, teaching him how to be a writer, and ultimately supplying him with a killer real-life plot – except that neither one of them knows how it will end. There are false starts along the way, red herrings, cold trails and seemingly unanswerable questions – crammed as tightly as you could wish. Who was driving the black Chevrolet Monte Carlo? What happened to the piece of paper in Tamara Quinn’s safe? How is millionaire businessman Elijah Stern mixed up in all this?  … And on it goes.

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is a seductive read – big, assertive and clever enough to distract from the fact that it’s otherwise far more conventional than it might first seem. Dicker’s uncomplicated prose canters along confidently (with translator Sam Taylor smartly keeping pace); the plotting is pleasingly intricate, if occasionally also forced, untangling a bit on every page and then swiftly re-tangling again, offering strategic revelations of the community’s long-buried, secrets and then undermining them. It’s all well-crafted and highly enjoyable. Joël Dicker’s debut novel may not be ground-breaking stuff, but once you’re inside it’s pretty hard to resist all the same.