NEW STUFF: The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair – Joel Dicker

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May 272014

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair
by Joël Dicker
translated from the French by Sam Taylor
Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-0-14-3122668-3
643 pp. $18.00
May 27, 2014

It may be unfair of me but all the while during the first 100+ pages of Joël Dicker’s mammoth The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair I kept hearing the strains of the Twin Peaks TV theme music.  And I pictured the beaming face of Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer each time Nola Kellergan appears in the many flashback sequences.  Both Dicker’s novel and the cult TV show of the 90s tell the story of a missing girl, the discovery of her body, and the slow reveal of who killed her. But as the labyrinthine story unfolds the Twin Peaks similarities soon dissipate and give way to something more subtle and subversive and — dare I say it — impressive.

Unwittingly Joël Dicker, a young Swiss novelist, has unleashed a Frankenstein’s monster with the publication of this book. Part whodunit, part satire of the publishing industry, and part writer’s handbook it has essentially become a work of fiction come to life.  In Dicker’s novel a young writer Marcus Goldman becomes a sensation in the literary world when he publishes a book called The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair.  (Oh yes, this is a also a work of metafiction.)  The book is an instant sensation and he becomes the darling of the media. So too has Dicker whose novel first published in Europe has become a mega-hit resulting in interview after interview and travel all over the globe to talk about this unique example of reality mirroring fiction. So much travel, in fact, that he has temporarily made his home in London to make air travel simpler rather than remaining at home in Geneva where direct air flights are at a minimum. Already an international bestseller for the past year Dicker’s novel has at last been translated into English and is being simultaneously released in the UK and the US today, May 27.

Not only has Dicker become the flavor of the month in crime fiction, his book (only his sophomore effort no less) has won three European literary awards including the prestigious Grand Prix du Roman from the Academie Française. Has Dicker really written a mini masterpiece, whether it be mainstream or genre fiction? Well, not really. But it is an awful lot of fun trying to figure out both the mystery of the ridiculously complex plot as well as trying to understand the reason for all the hype attached to this new writer’s book.

At its core …Harry Quebert Affair is a literary detective novel. Quebert, a literary sensation himself in the world of the novel, was Goldman’s college writing instructor, mentor and eventually a good friend. While visiting Quebert for some inspiration during Goldman’s severe writer’s block crisis a horrible crime is literally unearthed and Quebert is thrust into the limelight as prime suspect. The body of Nola Kellergan, a teenage girl who went missing back in 1975, is unearthed in a hidden grave located on the grounds of Quebert’s New Hampshire retreat. Goldman is determined to clear the name of his beloved friend and writing mentor and for the next 600+ pages (!) we follow his dogged investigation into the past of Somerset, New Hampshire, a typical New England village with more than its fair share of dirty secrets.

Joël Dicker ©Jeremy Spierer

But Dicker is not satisfied only with telling a crime story with as many twists as the Kumba roller coaster in Busch Gardens. He has cast the novel in the framework of a handbook for writers complete with boxing metaphors that might cause Philip Roth to smirk in its obvious homage. Oddly, the book chapters are also numbered in reverse numerical order (a gimmick that utterly eludes me) with each chapter preceded by sage advice from Harry to Marcus as to how a rookie should proceed in writing the Great American Novel. Problem is the advice is thoroughly hackneyed. The obvious advice and words of so-called wisdom have been given to novice writers for centuries. Why do we need to read all this? Well, Dicker has a clever and subversive reason for couching this novel as a sort of handbook for writers. It turns out to be only one aspect of a multitude of ironies culminating in the true meaning of the title itself.

I could use this review to write about the tangled plotlines, the shifts in viewpoint, the dizzying twists that keep changing how Nola is perceived or how the relationship between Marcus and Harry undergoes rifts and changes more harmful than good. But that’s what all the other reviewers are writing about. What really ought to be marvelled at is what Dicker does with the genre itself. The novel is an consummate example of the ultimate challenge between reader and mystery writer, a sure temptation for readers who loved to devour the old-fashioned puzzlers of the Golden Age. Once upon a time we read mysteries to be baffled, to be fooled and to have a clever storyteller pull the rug out from under us and leave us gasping for breath or laughing in admiration for having been outsmarted. Dicker mixes both hoary old clichés (anonymous messages, secret diaries) with contemporary thriller standbys (grisly crimes, psychosexual abnormalities, a hint of tawdriness) and comes up with a crackerjack tale that both entertains and manipulates the reader.

The world Dicker creates is wholly artificial as in the best of Golden Age detective novels. We are in an entirely fanciful world where writers are superstar celebrities instantly recognizable from their DJ photos. Everyone knows Marcus Goldman, everyone has read his book. Even Harry and his mega bestseller The Origin of Evil (ironically a love story) receives the same hyperbolic attention. This is a wholly mythologized world of the novelist, something that was barely a reality when celebrity authors regularly appeared on 1970s talk shows. Like the world of John Dickson Carr where ancient estates are haunted by ghosts and criminals commit elaborate crimes in baroquely sealed rooms meant to bamboozle and confound the police so too has Dicker created an entirely artificial world where novelists are hero worshiped as demigods and treated with both awe and sycophancy usually reserved for rock stars or professional athletes. It’s a wish fulfillment kind of writing to be sure and yet it is done so with the primary purpose of misleading the reader just as the great Golden Age writers did.

There are faults and irritations as well. The simplistic Confucian-like writer’s advice Quebert gives his student, the not so clever boxing metaphors, redundancies in the narrative when Dicker feels it necessary to recap the plot, a crucial character whose poorly reconstructed face after a horrific beating leaves him with a speech impediment that the translator renders in cutesy but more often offensive phonetics all began to wear down the reader’s patience. Also Dicker has an obsession with characters vomiting that began to really annoy me. Everyone in the book seemed to have a weak stomach and would throw up at the slightest sign of stress not just when they saw a dead body.

However, when Dicker lays off his nausea motif, discards the gimmick of the novel within the novel (which is often ham-handed), and decides to focus on Nola’s perplexing and contradictory life and her mysterious death the novel is utterly engaging. His plot pyrotechnics are his strength. They are audacious and preposterous and yet perfectly suited for his ultimate aim. The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is one of the best examples of a retro style crime novel whose only goal is to fool the reader with a gasp inducing finale. Joël Dicker succeeds in pulling off one of the best literary deceptions in years and ought to be applauded for the sheer chutzpah of his 600+ page magic trick.

 Posted by at 4:36 am
Aug 102012

While the first book the French writing team calling themselves Jacquemard-Sénécal wrote was in fact the second book they had published (Le onzième petit nègre, 1977), their first published book was apparently considered to be more conventional by the publisher though no less ingenious. It won for them the coveted Prix du Quai des Orfevres, the French mystery writer’s prize, in 1977. While The Eleventh Little Indian (as it was published in the US) was considered “too daring” I think Le Crime de la Maison Grün or, as the English publishers redubbed the book, The Body Vanishes (1976) is far more daring. The trickery employed in this debut (yet really their second book) and the gasp inducing solution surpass what the two men did in their Agatha Christie tribute.

A drowned woman’s body disappears from a river bank. It reappears in the locked and burglarized workshop of Wotan Grün, an antiquarian bookseller. The only thing noted to be missing is a rare 15th century incunabulum, the envy of several collectors and the bookseller’s competitors. The woman is soon identified as the lover of Wotan’s son Denis, the morose and cynical black sheep of the Grün household. As the intriguing investigation proceeds the entire household is enveloped in a world of treachery and thievery, murder attempts and suicide, and — believe it or not — the search for an alchemy formula for turning lead into gold.

The book introduces their series character Lancelot Dullac (cute name, huh?), a police detective who works alongside another policeman named Holz. The detection in this book is mostly of the Q&A type, though there are several instances of Golden Age type originality and cleverness in the few scenes that involve physical evidence. Most notable among those portions is a second impossible murder disguised as a suicide that involves some rigged machinery that John Dickson Carr might have dreamed up.

Once again on display a plethora of plot devices and motifs found in the work of their idol Agatha Christie. There are allusions to Evil Under the Sun, Peril at End House, Murder at the Vicarage and the many stage related mysteries she wrote. The two writers come from a theater background and once again dig into their trunk of stage tricks and illusions to bamboozle the reader with dazzling misdirection. There is even some dizzying business with rifles and bullets that reminded me of Erle Stanley Gardner’s gun crazy plots. All in all plenty of wizardry and plot machinations to appeal to any fan of the puzzle driven detective novel.

 Posted by at 3:29 pm
May 072012

“The John Dickson Carr of Sweden” proclaims the dust jacket of the first UK edition of Ättestupan (1975) translated as The Ancestral Precipice and published nearly ten years later.  Takes a while for the English language speaking world to catch on to a great writer, doesn’t it? While there is a baffling locked room murder in this cleverly constructed detective novel its central theme of family secrets and adulterous affairs has more in common with Ross Macdonald than Carr.

Charlotte Lethander, calls to her home her surviving nieces and their families to celebrate her ninetieth birthday. The entire multi-generational family arrives bringing with them plans for blackmail, scheming, adultery and murder. On the very first day of this rocky reunion we learn that the black sheep Victor, a womanizing photographer who likes shooting women nude, has a letter with incriminating information he wants to sell to his father, Martin, and demands 15,000 kronor for its delivery into his hands. Additional avaricious behavior is on display from the nieces, their husbands and children as they vie for the attention of the dying aunt Charlotte. In the midst of all this fawning adulation and scheming a murderer plots a revenge years in the making.

Before the weekend has hardly started Victor and Martin are dead.  It appears to be a murder/suicide. Martin having shot Victor apparently returned to his bedroom, locked his door, and allowed the extinguishing flames in the bedroom fireplace to suffocate him with carbon monoxide. But Martin’s children – especially his sharp-witted and sharper tongued daughter Vera – know that the strong-willed man would never submit to Victor’s demands and that the suicide has to be a cleverly disguised murder.  But how then did the murderer escape the room? It was locked on the inside. When the police investigate the scene the damper on the flue is open making it seem impossible for Martin to have died from carbon monoxide inhalation. And yet he did.  Further complicating matters is the fact that gun found in Martin’s room though recently fired is not the gun used to kill Victor. The case takes an even stranger twist when a second gun is found in the attic with fingerprints of another family member who was thought to have an alibi the night of the deaths.

“Can’t tell the players without a scorecard!”
The very necessary family tree I referred to frequently while reading

Hovering over these two crimes is the death of Mauritz Corn’s wife, Stella, who accidentally fell to her death and was discovered at the foot of ättestupan, the ancestral precipice of the title. The letter Victor had in his possession revealed the truth about her fatal plunge long believed to be an accident. Aunt Charlotte delivers a jarring description of the foreboding feature of the ättestupan and also the Nordic legend that attaches itself:

Do you know what was here before the house was built, just where we’re standing now, I mean? An ancestral precipice. It’s been here since Viking days, though I don’t suppose any Vikings lived here, you know, only cultivators. Nature is harsh. […] You know what an ancestral precipice is, Inspector? Some of the old ones threw themselves down the precipice. Others were given help when they asked for it. I wonder if anyone would want to give me help without my asking for it. For an ancient old hag it would be eminently suitable.

Inspector Durrell, in charge of the murder investigation, must not only get to the truth of the curious events surrounding the death of Victor and Martin, but also the mysterious death of Stella now looking more and more like a murder. Will the letter from Victor’s blackmail scheme ever be found?  Who does it name as Stella’s killer?  Will the killer strike again?

The story is filled with the kind of brooding aura and dark family secrets that fill the pages of the cases of Lew Archer. When I saw the Swedish film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo I also noted the pervading MacDonald-like atmosphere that imbued that film.  I wonder if Stieg Larsson was familiar with the mystery novels of Ekström who appears to have been influenced not only by Carr but by Ross Macdonald.  Fans of Larrson, Carr or Macdonald will find plenty to admire in The Ancestral Precipice, a real puzzler with plenty of twists and a good example of the least likely suspect revealed as the killer in the final pages.

AVAILABILITY:  The book was first published in the US in 1982 under the blase title Deadly Reunion.  Copies of both the UK and the US editions are readily available through the various internet bookselling sties. To date this is the only novel of the popular Swedish writer Jan Ekström that has been translated into English.

 Posted by at 5:01 pm