The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair

We assess a phenomenon


By Joël Dicker
Maclehouse Press, £20

Joël Dicker became Europe's publishing sensation of 2013 when his book La Vérité sur l'Affaire Harry Quebert sold more than a million copies in France. Now an international bestseller, it is likely to be the top holiday read this summer.

Dicker's novel is the story of two writers. Marcus Goldman is (like Dicker) still in his 20s. Goldman's first novel was a huge bestseller and now he's stuck on his follow-up book.

At this moment, his former college teacher, Harry Quebert, is charged with murdering 15-year-old Nola Kellergan, with whom he had fallen madly in love and who disappeared under mysterious circumstances 30 or so years earlier. Goldman goes back to the small town in New Hampshire, where he had gone to college, to try and clear his mentor's name.

It is not hard to see why The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair has been such a hit in Europe. It is a real page-turner. The plot twists and turns with some intriguing revelations and gathers speed over the last hundred pages. It moves between the present and the past: 1975 when Nola disappears; 2008 when her body is found and Goldman returns to New England.

It is not hard to see why it has been such a hit in Europe

Dicker has chosen his setting well: small-town America, complete with diner, college, seaside, dark impenetrable forest and our old friend, the long hot summer. Dicker fills his small town with a cast of familiar characters, all with dark secrets to hide. Think The Killing meets Twin Peaks, both about a young girl who disappears mysteriously from a town full of gothic characters.

However, unlike these TV series, Dicker has added a literary cleverness to draw in another kind of reader. His novel is full of knowing literary references, to Lolita (of course) and Philip Roth's The Human Stain, among others. Quebert's lawyer is called Roth and, like Coleman Silk in Roth's book, he was an avid boxer in his youth, became a college teacher at a small establishment in New England and is an outsider in a community which seems warm and friendly but under the surface is full of menace. Harry Quebert himself has echoes of Nabokov's Humbert Humbert, just as Lola has echoes of Lolita.

But Lolita and The Human Stain are great novels, beautifully written. Dicker's book is a middlebrow thriller, sensationalist, melodramatic, and implausible, leading the reader to suspect one character after another before moving on. Not one of the characters is truly engaging, least of all the two central protagonists, Goldman and Quebert. They are not Laura Palmer or Dale Cooper, let alone Lolita or Coleman Silk. As for the Jewish mother, you could (maybe should) skip the scenes where she appears.

International bestsellers (think Dan Brown, Jurassic Park, The Name of the Rose) are often lowbrow playing at being highbrow; Dicker does the same. It is a crowd-pleaser but, in the end, nothing more. Yet, like his hero, Marcus Goldman, there is no denying that Joël Dicker has hit the jackpot at his very first attempt.

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