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

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 June, 2014, 3:52pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 June, 2014, 3:52pm

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair
by Joël Dicker
4 stars

Guy Haydon

Swiss lawyer Joël Dicker's clever, multi-layered French-language murder-mystery attracted frenzied bidding at the 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair as publishers bought the rights in 32 countries.

The novel won three French literary prizes and topped the bestseller lists in France, Italy and Spain. The many rave reviews could easily fill this space. Now, finally, the English translation is published.

Dicker starts things off nicely with a rush of adrenaline, as a fearful woman calls the police: "Hello … I think I've just seen a man running after a girl in the woods. I think she was trying to get away from him."

That day, August 30, 1975, is the last time 15-year-old Nola Kellergan is seen alive.

Thirty-three years later, author Marcus Goldman - still revelling in celebrity after the huge success of his debut novel - is battling writer's block and, with his publisher's deadline looming, panicking about the follow-up.

Looking for inspiration, he heads to the small town of Aurora, in New Hampshire, the seaside home of Harry Quebert, his former university English lecturer and mentor; Quebert, 66, became a literary star 33 years before, with the publication of his love story, The Origin of Evil.

Yet all Goldman discovers, after rummaging through Quebert's things, are old photos of his mentor with a young girl.

Then a few weeks later, workmen at Quebert's home dig up the skeleton of a teenage girl, and Quebert is arrested.

However, Goldman believes his friend is innocent and vows to uncover the truth.

Dicker's intricate novel - a book about Goldman writing a book, focusing on Quebert writing his book - serves up a tantalising mix of constantly weaving narratives, jumping back and forth between past and present, laced with fiendish puzzles, red herrings, dead bodies, and a heavy dollop of shock revelations; you'll be struggling to guess whodunnit right to the end.

Throughout Dicker's novel, Quebert's advice to Goldman about writing punctuates the chapters.

On one occasion he says: "… About half a second after finishing your book, after reading the last word, the reader should be overwhelmed by a particular feeling … he should look at the cover and smile a little sadly because he is already missing all the characters. A good book, Marcus, is a book you are sorry to have finished."

Quebert is only half right. We are left missing convincing characters in Truth. Maybe it's his inexperience as a writer, but Dicker's stilted portrayals and often flat dialogue are the weak parts of his entertaining book.

It works in spite of the creaky characters; few - including Kellergan and her friendship with Quebert - come to life on the page.

Well-rounded, credible characters would have made this good book great.