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Joël Dicker: La Vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert (The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair)

This is Dicker’s second novel – the first had virtually no success – and it did remarkably well, selling lots of copies and winning the Goncourt Prix des lycéens (i.e the one where the jury is much younger than for the main prize). It has been or is being translated into several languages, including English and it got a lot of good reviews. Some critics said it cleverly combined the literary novel with the detective story. It also got quite a few bad reviews. Slate France (link in French), for example, asked the question, Is Joël Dicker a good writer? and then answered the question in the negative. I must say that I align with the Slate writer. While the detective story is quite clever – but then there are lots of clever detective stories – the fact that the two main characters are writers does not make it literary fiction. It is not. It is a quite clever detective story and not much more. As with the Slate writer, I agree that it is sloppily written. It has mistakes (Hilary for Hillary Clinton; a US citizen winning the Booker Prize in the 1970s), it is riddled with clichés and reads as though it has been rattled off without any editing either by Dicker or his editor. One of the English clichés that I hate is literally when the user means just the opposite. It is sad to see it used this way in French. Dicker does it three times. No, Joël, Nola did not literally live inside Harry (both biologically impossible and something that would have led to the immediate death of both) nor was Marcus literally massacred. Some of the plot is unconvincing (would the police have so readily assisted a friend of the accused who they had reason to believe was a pedophile and a murderer? If our hero, a novelist, could find out things, why couldn’t the journalists who were on the case? More particularly, why couldn’t the police, and would they really take a writer, who was friends of the accused, along with them when interviewing witness and let him ask questions? I don’t think so.) Enjoy it as a detective story which is a good read but great literature it certainly is not.

The basic plot is fairly simple and explained to us very early on. The rest of the 670 pages (in the French edition) is taken up with back story and with our hero’s investigation. Our hero is Marcus Goldman, a novelist. He has written one book (we do not know the subject), which has been very successful and made him a lot of money. He has been enjoying the trappings of wealth. However, he has a five-book deal with his publisher and the publisher and his own agent are pressurising him to write another book. He cannot come up with anything, try as he might. When the publisher threatens lawsuits, he turns to Harry Quebert. Harry had been his teacher at Burrows College, a liberal arts college in New England. Harry was a well-known writer, having published a very successful novel called The Origins of Sin (which won the Booker). The two had grown close and had remained on good terms. Harry invites him to stay with him in his house in Aurora, a small coastal town in New Hampshire (it is fictitious but Dicker has said that it is based on a town in Maine he visits every year.) One day, while Harry is out, Marcus decides to poke around in Harry’s cupboards and finds a box, containing not, as he hoped, a manuscript, but some photos of a much younger Harry with a girl called Nola, a letter from Nola about a meeting between the two and newspaper clippings about the disappearance of a Nola Kellergan, the photos confirming that it was the same girl. Harry catches him and, while annoyed, swears him to silence and tells him briefly that Nola was the only girl he ever loved, that she was fifteen years old and that she mysteriously disappeared thirty three years ago. Marcus swears to tell no-one.

Three months later he receives a cryptic phone call from Harry and Harry hangs up before giving a full explanation. However, he soon learns that the remains of Nola have been found, buried in Harry’s garden, together with a leather bag, containing the manuscript of The Origins of Sin. We learn that Harry had been suspected at the time for various reasons but there was no hard evidence so the matter had been dropped. He is now arrested for abduction and murder and things do not look good for him, not least because he admits to having had an affair with Nola who was, of course, under age at the time. Marcus heads for New Hampshire and decides to investigate. Meanwhile, his publisher and agent are pressurising him to write a book about the affair. He refuses but we know from the very beginning of the book that he will do so. As shown above it is Marcus, rather than the police or journalists who finds the truth, though there are lots of twists and detours – inevitably, as in any good detective story – before he gets there. As in any good detective story, we are given reason to suspect various people, no-one is quite what they seem and the police and Marcus are often barking up the wrong tree and, indeed, seem to ignore what seem to us obvious lines of investigation, before finally finding who committed the various crimes. In addition to Nola, there are, of course, other murders and a variety of other crimes, all of which are resolved. Enjoy it as a good detective story, albeit somewhat sloppily written, but great literature it is not.

Publishing history

First published in French 2012 by Fallois
First English translation by Maclehose in 2014
Translated by Sam Taylor