The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair has got a lot of attention for the bidding war between publishers that it has provoked. The novel has been translated into 32 languages and won three French literary prizes, and it’s certainly not a surprise that publishers saw that they had a hit on their hands. Originally published in French, Joel Dicker’s novel is a heady mix of literary layers, observations about writing as a profession, and trashy addictive plot turns worthy of an HBO series. At points, the cliffhangers feel like they should be punctuated by ending credits to spur on the binge reading.
Marcus Goldman is in the throes of literary fame and second novel anxiety when his mentor, famous writer and professor Harry Quebert, is accused of murder. Querbert’s 15 year old lover, Nola, from 35 years ago, is found buried in his garden, along with the manuscript of his best-selling novel. Quebert’s adopted small-town home lures Goldman away from his neuroses in New York and down the rabbit hole of local intrigues and his idols’ past.
Just as the premise suggests, there’s a lot of writerly woe and curtain twitching around the central crime which, above all else, is a lot of fun. The flashbacks to Querbert’s early days as a writer revolve around catty waitresses vying for his attention in the local cafe and his infatuation with Nola. The media fanfare and suspicion after Nola’s body is unearthed bring some wickedly malevolent characters to the fore: the appearance of a mysterious billionaire and his disfigured chauffeur are just the beginning of a web of backstories that keep the plot whistling through. The one clunky element to the carnival of characters is Marcus’ mother, a Jewish stereotype that exceeds cringe by periodically ringing Marcus up to nag him about getting married and spurting out the sort of lines that would be rejected from a sitcom.
Along with the small-town murder mystery, Dicker elevates the pulpy moments by exploring Marcus and Harry’s friendship and the lessons that Harry has given him about the nature of writing. The earnest advice about ‘never giving up’ and approaching writing like a boxing match is tempered with gleeful skewing of the publishing industry. Marcus’ publisher forces him into writing about ‘The Harry Quebert Affair’ and Marcus is spurred on to investigate by his publisher that seems more than happy to bring ghostwriters to fill in anyway. Getting everything wrapped up before the media are swamped with election news during 2008 is far more important than any sort of truth about Harry’s involvement in the case for Marcus’ Jerry Maguire-esque agent.
Dicker moves effortlessly between countryside murder, campus nostalgia and Goldman’s struggles to live up to the expectations of his first novel. There are some groan-inducing metatextual moments from Quebert’s writing advice, such as when ‘save the best till last’ opens the penultimate chapter, but it’s certainly forgivable with a novel that wears its trashy plot twists on its sleeve. The arching themes of loneliness and appearances that resonate for both Marcus and Harry maintain the reader’s emotional engagement and deliver poignant moments throughout.
In many ways, Harry Quebert can be compared to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: both are examples of high quality writing and astute observation that satisfies the reader with plots that are indulgently lower rent. Some critics are probably prepared to argue that Harry Quebert is a literary novel because it has writerly themes and to make it appeal to the sort of reader that wants to convince themselves their reading is more challenging than it is. I won’t be rushing to compare Dicker to Roth or Nabokov as the hype around this novel has, but that certainly doesn’t prevent it from being an extremely fun and well-made read.