Sunday 22 April 2018

Plot twists make debut author's whodunnit really readable

Book review: The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, Joël Dicker

Joel Dicker
Joel Dicker
The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker

John Boland

Although the characters in this intricate 615-page whodunnit are American and the setting is New Hampshire, the young author is Swiss and he wrote the book in French. Indeed, it was in France that it first dominated the bestseller lists (two million copies sold to date) and won two major literary awards.

Not bad going for a writer who was only 26 when he submitted the manuscript to a tiny French publishing house. He's 28 now, his book is being translated into more than 30 languages. Its English publisher hails Dicker as "Switzerland's coolest export since Roger Federer" – and Ron Howard has acquired the movie rights.

So how does it measure up to all the hype it's received? Very well, actually – indeed, it's so ingeniously plotted that both its narrator and the reader are constantly being misled by unreliable or duplicitous witnesses or by information that leads down false trials.

The central mystery concerns what happened to 15-year-old Lola, who disappeared from the sleepy New Hampshire town of Somerset in 1975, only for her remains to be discovered 33 years later in the garden of the town's most illustrious resident, acclaimed novelist Harry Quebert, who's promptly arrested for her murder.

Harry, though, has long been a mentor to young Marcus Goldman, who has also become a famous novelist, and its narrator Marcus who seeks to solve the mystery and clear Harry's name – while also, and less nobly, writing an account of what really happened for which he's being paid a $2m (€1.4m) advance.

The book is so brilliantly paced and so fluently written (Sam Taylor's translation is so good you're never aware it's a translation) that its 600-page length never seems too long, and though by the end you may feel Dicker has engineered one shaggy-dog contrivance too many, the pleasurable rewards along the way more than compensate.

Chief among these are a cast of small-town characters who wouldn't dishonour a John Updike or Philip Roth satire of suburbia. Dicker may not be quite in that literary league, but his people come vividly alive (more vividly than in Updike, actually), as do the gleefully-lampooned figures from the New York book-publishing scene with whom Marcus has to deal.

And if Harry's obsessive infatuation with the underage Lola, as documented in the lovestruck prose rhapsodies reproduced here, leads Dicker to indulge in stylistic flourishes more usually found in true-romance magazines, you have the teasing sense that he's having a bit of fun with the reader in this regard, too – playfully flirting with the pulp-fiction possibilities and pitfalls of the tale he's telling.

One way or the other, the book is tremendous fun and almost insanely readable. However, Ron Howard should forget about the movie version – this cries out for a six-episode cable TV series instead that would enable viewers to savour the characters, as well as the the dizzying plot twists.

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