May 29, 2014
(++++) INS AND OUTS AND BACKS AND FORTHS
The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair. By Joël Dicker. Translated by Sam Taylor. Penguin. $18.
A lot of it is Grace Metalious’ fault, or to her credit. Ever since her 1956 novel Peyton Place, the concept of a small town where secrets run deep and soap opera thoroughly covers everyone with suds has been a standard plot line, becoming more and more complicated and convoluted as authors everywhere strive to outdo whatever has gone before. The result, or one result at any rate, is The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair.
And some of it may be laid at the feet of Vladimir Nabokov, whose 1955 novel Lolita was first published in Paris, where it quickly became a succès de scandale for its portrayal of the affair between a man in his mid-30s and a decidedly underage girl of 12.
A lot of it, though, belongs entirely to Joël Dicker (born 1985), whose book, written in French, has some of the frantic pacing of a Molière comedy from which all the amusement has been excised. Its topic: an affair between a man in his mid-30s and a decidedly underage girl of 15, taking place in a small town where secrets run deep.
Dicker, who lives in Geneva rather than Paris, turns and twists the plots of more than half a century ago in a variety of clever ways, some of them a touch too clever but all of them very well-wrought indeed. Flashing back and forth repeatedly between 1975 and 2008, which is the “present day” in the novel’s terms, and with stops in various other years, Dicker tells of the disappearance of 15-year-old Nola Kellergan from the small town of Somerset, New Hampshire, after she is seen running with a man in pursuit. The woman who saw the scene is murdered, and everything is shrouded in mystery (the cliché fits the plot perfectly) until Nola’s body is discovered three decades later on the property of well-known author Harry Quebert, who is promptly charged with murder. To Harry’s rescue comes Marcus Goldman, Harry’s protégé and admirer, who has written a successful book but has a severe case of writer’s block and cannot make any progress on a second one.
So The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is, among other things, a book about books, a writing about writing – a sure-fire recipe for critical acclaim, which the novel has in fact garnered internationally. Much of the celebration is justified: Dicker paces the work expertly, tossing hints at readers tantalizingly and delighting in his knowledge of the wrong paths down which those hints will lead. And Dicker is far better than most mystery/thriller writers at fleshing out his characters, even to the point of humanizing the inevitable slow-on-the-uptake-but-good-at-heart-and-dogged-in-pursuit police investigator, Sergeant Perry Gahalowood.
If only Dicker had not fallen quite so deeply in love with his own plot complexities! The novel is huge, more than 600 pages, so its occasional dips into cliché are certainly understandable: “‘The more we find out, the murkier it gets,’ he [Gahalowood] said. ‘I think there is some central piece of evidence that would connect all these people and these events. That’s the key to this investigation!’” Well, yes, Dr. Watson, thank you very much. Fortunately for the quality of The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair, there is no Sherlock Holmes here. But there is a great deal more. Curiously, at a time more sexually forthright than that of the mid-1950s, there are no extended sex scenes in the book at all, nor even a sexual statement about Harry and Nola, despite their spending extended time on vacation together and planning to run away to Canada; Nola’s being under age is important to the plot, but her sexual behavior is not – at least not with Harry, with whom Nola is no more innocent than Lolita was with Humbert Humbert. A nude painting of Nola, though, is a significant plot point, as it dramatically expands the list of suspects: “The painting of Nola was found in the studio and removed. Elijah Stern was taken to the state police headquarters to be interviewed, but he was not charged. Nevertheless, this latest development ratcheted up public curiosity about the case even higher. First the famous writer Harry Quebert was arrested, and then the former police chief Gareth Pratt was, and now the richest man in New Hampshire was apparently mixed up in the death of young Nola Kellergan.”
And this is but a small element of the interlinked plots of The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair, a book whose complexity eventually comes to seem to be its major purpose – almost, though not quite, to the point of derailing the story. For example, the primary tale is told in 31 chapters, numbered in reverse from 31 to 1. The reason is made clear at the book’s very end, but even then seems rather silly and overdone. The book’s title itself is a snake-eating-its-own-tail sort of thing: Goldman’s second book, about the New Hampshire mystery, is called The Harry Quebert Affair, and is written in the course of the events of the novel; it turns out to have significant errors, leading Goldman to produce a third, fully explanatory book called, yes, The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair, which could thus also be written The Truth about “The Harry Quebert Affair.” And of course that is the very book that readers are here offered – a fact confirmed on the final page, which offers Acknowledgments not from Dicker but from Goldman to characters in the story.
Amid this considerable complexity, there are some notable misfirings. Goldman’s publisher, Roy Barnaski, is so much a cardboard character that he practically folds in half. More significantly, a character named Robert Quinn, whose very insignificance as a typecast, badly henpecked husband makes it clear that he is important, remains entirely one-dimensional even when he does indeed prove to be a linchpin of the plot. Furthermore, there is an endless litany of characters saying such things as, “‘It’s complicated, Sergeant. Everything is so complicated.’” This is said most often by Harry to Goldman, making it clear again and again – rather too frequently – that there is more to the story than whatever has been revealed so far. And then there is the matter of the book that made Quebert famous. It is a deep, passionate and emotionally trenchant love story, we are told repeatedly; and it is called The Origin of Evil, a title that makes no sense whatsoever – we are told that, too – and that holds the key to the solution of a major element of the mystery, but a title that everyone (including Goldman) passes over lightly and never attempts to explore in detail until the big revelation about it in one of the book’s climactic passages. This fact alone strains credulity to the breaking point.
Nor is it the only matter to do so. The Origin of Evil, we learn, was published after Harry simply sent it to five publishers, one of which accepted it immediately. Ridiculous – almost as ridiculous as the fact that Goldman’s publisher decides to pay him $3,000,000 for his yet-unwritten book about Nola Kellergan and Harry Quebert. Good luck with either of those occurrences in the real world of publishing.
Some elements of The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair, such as the overuse of coincidence and the piling-up of revelations, are endemic to modern mystery/thrillers, and it must be said that Dicker’s prose – even in translation – renders many scenes so compelling that plot holes barely show through. Other aspects of the book, including a finale in which every single oddity of the lengthy investigation is tied up with a neatness befitting a carefully woven tapestry, are intellectually satisfying but emotionally vapid: there is a point at which revelation piles so high upon revelation upon other revelation that the reader comes down with revelational fatigue.
It is easy to see why the cleverness and book-about-writing-books elements of The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair have garnered the novel so much praise; and Dicker’s novel is indeed an exceptionally well-written and deftly plotted (actually over-plotted) work in its genre. It is very much worth reading for anyone with a taste for thrillers seasoned with a touch of literary merit and indebted to scandalous books of the past – which it transcends in some ways and to which it remains enthralled in others.