The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair, by Joël Dicker, translated by Sam Taylor, MacLehose RRP£20/Penguin RRP$18, 624 pages
The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair, Swiss author Joël Dicker’s second published novel, is a phenomenon. So far it has been translated into 32 languages, with 2m copies sold, and the film rights have just been acquired by Warner Bros. It has won prizes in France, where it has been hailed as a literary thriller: a Millennium Trilogy with brains. I’m sure it will do equally well in English. But I am slightly baffled, not that this novel has sold well, but that it has been received by critics so enthusiastically. For, it must be said, this is a badly written book: clunky with cliché, stuffed full of dead dialogue and populated by cartoon-like characters.
The 28-year-old Dicker tells a straightforward story of literary wish-fulfilment. Marcus Goldman, a young American author whose first book made him famous, is struggling with his difficult second novel. His debut is “the talk of the town”. He goes to parties in New York and dates glamorous actresses. “Look, it’s Goldman! It’s that writer!” people say, rather unconvincingly, as he walks around. But the deadline for his second novel is approaching, and Goldman is blocked. This goes on for pages.
Then his mentor, Harry Quebert, a Great American novelist, is arrested on suspicion of murdering a 15-year-old girl 30 years previously. Goldman travels to Somerset, the small town in New Hampshire where his mentor lives in quiet isolation, and tries to overcome his writer’s block by finding out the truth about the murder.
“Quebert” is an odd name. There’s also a police officer called “Gahalowood”. I have no idea where these names, like misheard Pynchon, come from. Quebert is into boxing and running and general manly pursuits, dispensing fortune-cookie wisdom as he goes. “You should prepare for your writing as you prepare for a boxing match,” he says. “In the days leading up to the fight, you should be training at only seventy per cent, so that the rage that explodes on the day of the match has been allowed to slowly simmer and rise within you.” When Quebert is not giving terrible writing advice, he becomes inane: “We can never be sure of anything,” he says, “that’s why life is so complicated sometimes.” Quite.
Dicker is firmly of the “tell don’t show” school of writing. Quebert is a famous writer because Dicker tells us he is. Hyperbole stands in for verisimilitude. Writers are not just writers but “great writers”; Goldman isn’t just a good student but Quebert’s “most brilliant student”. Success is invariably measured in money.
And hand in hand with hyperbole goes cliché. Boxing isn’t boxing but “the noble art of boxing”; people don’t just remember, they remember “vividly”; they don’t wear glasses but are “bespectacled”. Instead of listening to pieces of music, they listen to genres – “I was listening to opera. It takes my mind off things.” Events aren’t just events but “dramatic events”. You get the idea.
This isn’t quite Dan Brown levels of bad writing but it runs him pretty close. Sam Taylor’s translation seems faithful and true but I can’t imagine these things sounding much better in French. The big problem is that Dicker, or his publishers, thinks he’s doing something rather more clever than he actually is. The novel has been described as a “postmodern thriller” because it is structured as a series of books-within-books, nestling within one another like Russian dolls. And yet, like a Russian doll, it’s all rather too full of itself.
Dicker is a good plotter, and the final section of the book is pleasing in its revelations. Some of it, intentionally or not, is also quite funny (there are a few hammy setpieces starring Goldman’s Jewish mother). Which is to say I am sure it will be seen on beaches both at home and abroad this summer. But I imagine that it will be left on them afterwards.