|THE TRUTH ABOUT THE HARRY QUEBERT AFFAIR
Joël Dicker (joeldicker.com)
Translated by Sam Taylor
Maclehose Press (maclehosepress.com)
Late in the summer of 1975, Nola Kellergan disappeared from the small seaside town of Somerset, New Hampshire. Almost thirty-three years later, her body is found buried on Harry Quebert’s land, along with the original manuscript of the novel that made him famous. Arrested as a suspect, Quebert admits to having an affair with the fifteen-year-old girl that summer of 1975. His student and protégé, Marcus Goldman, struggling to begin his own second novel following the runaway success of his debut, heads to Somerset to prove his old teacher’s innocence. The more he digs, the more complicated the case becomes, and it soon becomes clear that Harry Quebert may not have been the only older man in Somerset with whom Nola was having an affair. Battling against looming deadlines, and the barriers thrown up by the tight-knit community of Somerset, Marcus must get to the bottom the mystery if he is to return his mentor to his rightful place as America’s finest novelist, and ensure his own career doesn’t end up in the toilet.
Every once in a while, a novel comes along that completely redefines how we look at fiction. I’m thinking of Laurent Binet’s HHhH, or Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. While much less experimental – in terms of structure, at least – than both those titles, Joël Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is most definitely one of those books. The Great American Novel, as imagined by a Swiss writer, it’s a pitch-perfect rendition of American life – both on the small-scale, small-town level, and on the larger-scale, country-wide view – with a wonderfully twisted mystery at its core.
Constructed around Harry Quebert’s rules for writing, the story is told by young Marcus Goldman, whose first novel brought him phenomenal success, and who is now struggling to put the opening of his second contracted novel on paper, much less have it finished within the next two or three months. Goldman discovers Harry’s relationship with 15-year-old Nola shortly before her body is found, and is convinced of his old mentor’s innocence from the outset. To help Harry out, and to escape the looming deadline and the threat of court action that missing it entails, Goldman heads to the small New Hampshire town that Harry calls home to start his own investigation, something that initially doesn’t go down well with Sergeant Perry Gahalowood, the State Policeman in charge of the official investigation. As their respective investigations progress, it becomes obvious very quickly that the story behind Nola’s disappearance is not quite as straightforward as it would, at first, appear. Of one thing, Marcus has no doubt: Harry and Nola were deeply in love, and were due to flee together to Canada on the night she disappeared. As one twist follows closely on the heels of another, Goldman and Gahalowood pool their resources in the hope of getting to the bottom of the mystery.
There is beauty on almost every page of The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. Goldman’s voice, that of a small-town Jew turned New York hipster, is spot on, and he is the perfect guide through the town of Somerset, both in the present day, and during that summer of 1975 when Harry Quebert was trying to write his own second novel while falling in love with a 15-year-old girl. The parallels between Harry in 1975 and Marcus in 2008 are unmistakeable, and in both cases, the young Nola is the muse that can propel them to stardom.
Dicker’s strengths lie in his understanding of the American psyche, and his ear for dialogue which, considering the book was written originally in French, is remarkably close to the real thing. When Harry is arrested, it isn’t the fact that he may have murdered a young girl that scandalises the nation, but the fact that he may have slept with her (something that is never explicitly implied within the pages of the book). It is only after this revelation that Harry becomes a pariah, his books pulled from the shelves of bookstores, and from the syllabi of schools, across the nation. Harry Quebert, whether found guilty or not by a jury of his peers, will forever be tainted by this moment in his history.
a is a monster of a book, but Dicker’s writing style pulls the reader along at a rapid clip. The bulk of what we find out, we do so from the dialogue – Marcus’ conversations with Harry, and with the residents of Somerset; his conversations with Perry Gahalowood, and in the flashbacks to 1975 where we watch the carefully choreographed dance that will ultimately entwine the future of Harry Quebert with that of Nola Kellergan. The dialogue is wonderful and, as well as imparting information, gives Dicker the chance to inject some wit and levity into what is part tense mystery, part tale of deep and passionate love. This is especially so during conversations with Marcus’ mother (the stereotypical Jewish American mother):
[After trying to convince his mother that the man in his hotel room is Sergeant Gahalowood, and that he is not naked]
"Markie, in the name of your ancestors who fled the pogroms and for the love of your sweet mother, chase that naked man out of your room."
Or with Roy Barnaski, his abrasive publisher, whose unique view on the world, and eagerness to foist a team of ghost writers on Marcus do nothing to promote the world of publishing:
"Goldman, I paid you two million dollars for this fucking book, so it would be nice if you could be a little more cooperative. If I think you need help from my writers, just fucking use them!"
And especially in the wonderful scenes with Gahalowood, a man who, for me at least, will always speak in the voice of Samuel L. Jackson.
"The thing is, Sergeant, I’m running an investigation too," I told him very seriously. "Tell me what you know about the case."
He laughed again.
"I don’t believe this. You’re running an investigation? That’s a new one. You owe me fifteen dollars, by the way."
"That’s what I paid for your book. I read it last year. A very bad book. Probably the worst I’ve read in my entire life. I would like to be reimbursed."
With the beauty of Dicker’s writing – and due credit needs to be given here to the very talented Sam Taylor, whose translation from the French is what makes this wonder sing for the English-speaking audience – it’s easy to get lost in the world of Somerset and forget that there is a murder to solve. Dicker uses this to his best advantage, sometimes throwing a revelation – or a new body – at us when we least expect it. Like the finest mysteries, the strength of the one at the heart of The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair lies in the author’s ability to misdirect the reader – and the protagonist – without ever cheating us, or hiding clues from us, in the process. Each resolution seems as plausible as the one before, until some new piece of evidence comes to light. The final twist, that moment of elegant reveal for which every fan of crime fiction yearns, sees all the pieces fall into place, finally putting the reader on level footing with the author when it’s too late to cry "I saw that coming!".
The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is, quite simply, one of the best books I’ve read in a number of years, and likely one of the best I’ll read for a number of years to come. Skilfully constructed, with a cast of memorable and engaging characters – not only Marcus and Gahalowood, but also Nola and Harry himself – it’s a masterclass in small-town American crime made all the more impressive by its non-American roots. It may look daunting, but once you crack the spine, it’s next to impossible to set aside for any length of time. Without doubt, one of my favourite reads of all time, I’ll be watching Joël Dicker’s career extremely closely from here on. Whatever you do, don’t miss this.