Marcus Goldman’s debut novel was such a sensation that the 30-year-old can no longer jog around Manhattan without someone shouting out, “Look it’s Goldman! It’s that writer!” But barely a year-and-a-half after his bestseller shot him to the kind of heady fame that’s difficult to imagine any writer experiencing, Goldman is plagued by writer’s block. With his publisher’s deadline looming, he seeks refuge with his former mentor – the “Great Writer” Harry Quebert – in the small New England town of Aurora. Just in time to become embroiled in the sudden reopening of a 33-year-old cold case. The body of Quebert’s 15-year-old lover, Nola Kellergan, is discovered buried on his property – implicating Quebert in a sordid crime against a minor. Now it’s up to his “exceptional” sometime pupil, Goldman, to crack the mystery of Nola’s death and clear Quebert’s name.
If Joël Dicker’s book within a book is supposed to be an elaborate comment on overhyped, poorly executed literary sensations then the author has been so diligent to his task that it’s impossible to differentiate it from the genuine article.
Characters push beyond mere stereotype into the cartoonish, the hero’s serendipitous investigation makes any hour-long CSI show look like a masterpiece, and the representation of young women so gloomily languishes in weepy victimhood that it’s tempting to imagine stereotype-buster Stieg Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) turning in his grave at the thought of sharing shelf space with the Swiss author.
Still, this would be forgivable if Dicker were merely penning a rompy murder mystery. The plot twists in the last third of his book are enjoyable. And, to be fair, the structure (with its melange of perspectives and styles) may be clunky, but is undeniably ambitious.
Unfortunately, the awkwardly postmodern device of heading each chapter with Quebert’s lectures about the craft of writing (replete with tortured boxing similes), and the constant lionising of the literary prowess of both the protagonist and his mentor, put in stark relief the clumsy, trite and just plain bad writing throughout. Take this small passage from Quebert’s triumph of American Letters, The Origin of Evil: My sweet darling, you must never die. You are an angel. Angels never die… Dry your tears, I beg you.
At a hefty 630-plus pages, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair can’t literally be described as ‘lightweight’, but when balanced against the buzz surrounding its release, Dicker’s book is – to borrow a well-pummelled boxing metaphor – unsuccessfully punching above its weight.
» The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is out now.