Michael Bartholomew-Biggs finds Joël Dicker’s weighty novel to be a good solid, holiday read

.   Harry Quebert

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair
Joël Dicker
MacLehose Press
ISBN: 978 0 85705 309 1
620 pp   £20

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In 1975 a 15 year old girl called Nola Kellergan goes missing from a small town in New Hampshire; and 33 years later her body is discovered in circumstances that throw suspicion on renowned American novelist, Harry Quebert. It falls to another novelist, Marcus Goldman, to try and solve the mystery and thereby save the reputation of a man who has been both his mentor and his friend. Marcus also has problems of his own: his first book has enjoyed great success but he is now struggling for inspiration to produce a follow-up and realising that his short-lived wealth and fame have come at great cost to his personal life.

 The account of the subsequent investigation is certainly a page-turner – and at over 600 pages that is a lot of turning! Most of the people who were around when Nola disappeared are still available to be questioned; and the enquiries carried out by Marcus (with the grudging cooperation of a local detective) begin to uncover a remarkable number of facts that somehow remained undiscovered – or were suppressed – at the time of the initial investigations. Characters who were previously thought to be quite unconnected with Nola suddenly turn out to have had unsuspected dealings with her; and some significant misunderstandings about her family background that have gone unchallenged for over thirty years are fortuitously cleared up. Of the numerous revelations that take place I can only claim to have foreseen one – and even that one did not materialise in quite the form I had predicted.

 The book is written in an episodic way and the narrative jumps between 1975, the year of the crime, and 2008, the year of the discovery of the body. There are also some further temporal excursions back to preliminary events in the mid 1960s and forward to 2010, the year in which Marcus is writing the book which describes the final solution to the mystery. This time-jumping, coupled with the large number of characters (most of whom are also suspects), could have made the plot hard to follow but in fact the narrative is remarkably clear. The book is a translation (by Sam Taylor) of the original French in which Joël Dicker’s novel is written. The prose is lucid enough; but it struck me as slightly odd that a book which dwells at some length on the challenges of writing literary fiction should fail to provide any convincing quotations from the ‘great writers’ who feature in the story. Besides Harry and Marcus a third, hitherto undiscovered novelist turns up quite late in proceedings; but there seems to be no evidence of (or differentiation between) the styles of these three supposedly gifted wordsmiths.

As stated already this book is an enjoyable and compelling plot-driven read. The intricacies of the mystery are what matter and at times I found myself needing to check back to make sure that the narrative was consistent (it was) or wondering whether the complex story could be adapted as a TV serial (perhaps one day it will be…). The main protagonists, however, are not particularly engaging. Neither Marcus nor Harry struck me as particularly interesting or likeable; and given what else we are told about them I did not really believe that they would have a shared interest in boxing. The wide range of subsidiary characters are well sketched; and the most sympathetic person in the book is probably the detective Perry Gahalowood. Some occasional but welcome comic relief is provided by the rather caricature figures of Marcus’s mother and his objectionable publisher.

The book has deservedly enjoyed considerable success both in the original and in translation. Some of the dust-jacket praise it has received seems to imply it is something more than a good and well-sustained mystery story: but such claims seem to me to overstate the case.