Book review

'The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair': Swiss-French thriller phenom falls flat

Joel Dicker arrives with the greatest of buzz, but his 640-page tale confuses more than it thrills

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As I sat at my desk, finishing “The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair” by Joel Dicker, I was thinking I missed something. This couldn’t be all there was. Maybe I accidently skipped a page. This highly praised novel by a 29-year-old Swiss novelist from Geneva, first published in French in 2012, is preceded by four pages of glowing excerpts from international reviews. It couldn’t be the same one that left me in a confused silence. And yet, it was.

By Joel Dicker
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor
Penguin Books ($18).

The story follows an author named Marcus Goldman, whose first novel was an instant hit. Following this success, however, he struggles with writer’s block for almost two years. Marcus decides to take a journey to visit his mentor and friend Harry Quebert, another author whose own second book, “The Origin of Evil,” became a phenomenon. This retreat into the quiet New Hampshire town of Somerset is quickly overturned by the discovery of the remains of a young woman — Nola Kellergan — on Harry’s property.

When Harry reveals that he had an affair with the dead girl, Marcus takes it upon himself to find the real murderer and end the 33-year-old case. It’s not the most original thriller setup, but “Harry Quebert” does offer some new twists to the formula.

It is told in a first-person perspective with Marcus as the narrator, with third-person-view flashbacks to the summer of the murder. I find this to be a unique take, as the book presents itself in such a way that makes speculation on the culprit’s identity easy and almost addicting to do.

Also sprinkled in, usually at the start of each chapter, are conversations between Harry and Marcus while the latter was in college. During these chats, Harry reveals a tip or lesson about writing a book, something that a creative writer can really appreciate.

On the other hand, the plot suffers from being too quick and relies rather heavily on shocking rather than engaging. There’s a new plot twist every 10 pages or so, which causes confusion and makes note-taking a must. And at a beefy 640 pages, this is no breezy beach read.

The imagery describing the town of Somerset is gorgeous and can be clearly visualized (Mr. Dicker’s official bio notes that his childhood summer vacations were spent in New England). But some characters are given details that could’ve easily been inferred on their own. For example, Harry’s lawyer, Benjamin Roth, is called a man “who resorted to foul language easily when he was annoyed.” Considering that Roth’s last bit of dialogue before this explanation was a swear word, it hardly seems necessary and is almost insulting to the reader’s intelligence.

Furthermore, any fans of popular culture will notice the heavy borrowing. It doesn’t take an eagle eye to spot similarities with “Carrie,” “Psycho,” “The Exorcist” and even the likes of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” There is a fine line between paying homage and having to pay royalties.

Nevertheless, the dialogue does shine in parts, such as when Marcus speaks to a cop who is not a fan of his work:

“I read on the Internet that when children disappear, the culprit is often a member of the family.”

Gahalowood rolled his eyes.

“I read on the Internet that you’re a great writer. So clearly the Internet is just a pack of lies.”

Harry Quebert himself is extremely quotable, and not just in the life/writing lessons. Most of the conversations between characters contain a chuckle-worthy line. The difficult part comes in identifying the comedian. During long discussions, names and even pronouns are used sparingly. It’s not uncommon to see a whole page of dialogue, nothing else. Like the aforementioned plot twists, it is distracting and makes it frustrating to concentrate.

When I finally shut the book and tried to decipher the story, I struggled to think of an adjective to describe it all. In the end, I settled on “hollow.”

Yet “The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair” is not soulless. Parts were genuinely enjoyable, and I was hooked on figuring out the mystery of Somerset. But the labor that was put into it compared with the labor I used to read it did not feel equal, and ultimately that soured the experience. The truth about “Harry Quebert” is that it’s no more than an above-average thriller.

Corinne Taggart is a freelance writer.

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