LaJoie: “Well, who do you suspect?”
Clouseau: “I suspect everyone.”
- A Shot in the Dark (Dir. Blake Edwards)
I am almost certainly the wrong person to review Swiss writer Jöel Dicker’s 667-
pound page, award-winning polar, La Vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert (just published
in English as The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair). With
exceptions, I’m not a fan of the genre. But while in France last year I’d been
intrigued by reading about the book’s attempt to recreate an American thriller and
explore American society. I do like,
with exceptions, those foreign novels that take on the U.S. as a subject, and
the Edward Hopper painting on the book’s cover was further enticement. Anyway,
within pages of starting Dicker’s galloping story, I’d resigned myself to finishing
it. There must be a name for this syndrome: the compulsion to find out what
happens despite a simultaneous impatience to be done with the thing.
A murder committed, a killer to be found - standard polar stuff - but a deliberate meta-fictional element buoys Dicker’s novel, as he makes it as much about the writing (and marketing) of a thriller as it is one itself.
The year is 2007. Marcus Goldman, a New York writer whose first novel has propelled him to stardom, finds himself with writer’s block. Desperate, he contacts his former mentor, Harry Quebert, author of an award-winning 1975 novel, The Origins of Evil, and visits him in Aurora, the seaside New Hampshire town where Quebert has lived quietly since producing his blockbuster. Yet despite Quebert’s encouragements Goldman returns to New York frustrated.
Months later Goldman’s agent calls and tells him to turn on the TV: Harry Quebert has been arrested for the murder of 15-year-old Nola Kellergan, whose disappearance from Aurora, that summer of ‘75 when the 34-year-old Quebert had moved there and written his novel, had attracted national attention. Nola’s remains, along with a bag holding the original manuscript of The Origins of Evil, have just been found buried on Quebert’s property, and Quebert, while denying culpability, admits to having had a relationship with the adolescent, his “muse.” One is almost obliged here to index a thought for Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, especially since the writer’s liaisons with Nola occurred in a roadside motel of exactly the sort Humbert Humbert would have chosen.
For 600 pages, Dicker takes us through an increasingly complicated investigation. Goldman installs himself in Quebert’s house while his friend awaits trial. Prompted by his desire to exonerate Quebert as well as by a publisher salivating over a book to capitalize on the scandal, Goldman takes the murder on as his topic and finds himself at last writing effortlessly while joining forces with an Aurora police officer to probe the case’s multiplying mysteries.
And do these mysteries ever multiply. Dicker’s convoluted plot puts increasing distance between the most obvious solution - that Quebert killed and buried Nola - and alternatives so exponentially proliferating that one can’t help but laugh. Nearly everyone in La Vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert is suspect; I half expected Dicker to turn himself in at the end.
As a novel about writing, La Vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert tosses off some amusing references to the writing life. Quebert, a manly-man writer in the vein of Norman Mailer, provides, in what serve as interchapters, writing “lessons” to Goldman that consist largely of kitsch boxing metaphors (“Raise your fists, take your stance, prepare yourself to fight…a book is a battle”). Quebert’s lawyer, in a humorous referential note, is named Roth. There's a reference to Arthur Miller's The Crucible. If I’m not mistaken, there’s also a nod to Dutch writer Harry Mulisch and his famous writing table in Amsterdam’s Café Americain. In any case, the American café that serves as Aurora’s social hub strongly resembles the New Hampshire cafeteria that figures in George Simenon’s Feux Rouges, and Dicker’s most evident model is Simenon himself, who, during his years in New England, traveled frequently along U.S. Route 1, to which Dicker tethers the action of La Vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert.
Dicker’s book comes across as both homage to and parody of mystery novels set in America. He seems mostly intent on reproducing such an American-style thriller, along the way providing a recognizable view of American alienation, paranoia, and especially the dynamic that turns tragedy into spectacle and violence into profit, while also aiming at that key fulcrum of American culture, the entwined tension between Puritanism and prurience. He lances numerous other American subjects, including, perhaps most successfully, the media apparatus ready to sensationalize the most heinous crime as long as doing so can produce a return. His portrait of the publishing industry is deeply cynical: the deadline that must be met if the Quebert affair isn’t to be swept off the news by the 2008 Presidential election; the teams of lawyers to handle potential libel issues; marketers rushing to create a buzz for the book; film rights negotiators securing a deal; professional ghost-writers standing by to “spice up the sauce” should Goldman fail to invent enough salacious detail.
Like fallen autumn leaves, the novels within Dicker’s novel accrete and overlap one another. Quebert’s published novel is haunted by the original manuscript version, while Goldman’s book-in-progress about the scandal, entitled L’Affaire Harry Quebert, nests within Dicker’s own book, which continues this playful game through to the acknowledgements page, where thanks are given to some characters as though they existed outside Dicker’s fiction. Dicker also constructs his narrative of multiple texts, including excerpts from Goldman's manuscript and Quebert's novel, journal entries, letters, police reports, transcripts of recordings, newspaper clippings, even advertisements.
As enriching and clever as these referential, meta-fictional elements are, none of this goes terribly deep, and I found myself wishing this massive entertainment had been of Simenonean brevity. Like the formula mystery novels that Dicker appears to parody - if my occasional sampling of them gives any indication - La Vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert relies heavily upon plot, and, even if this is a particularly clever example, it thinly bridges key plot points with prose that can at times be arid, plodding and redundant. What’s more, the passages Dicker invents for Goldman’s In Cold Blood-style work, L’Affaire Harry Quebert, and for Quebert’s own The Origins of Evil, come across as mundane – perhaps (one might hope) as a satire of American literary tastes.
At one point, Harry Quebert bluntly tells Marcus Goldman:
You’re a writer, let’s say…a modern writer. You please readers because you’re young and dynamic…and trendy. You’re a trendy writer. And that’s that. No one expects that you’re going to obtain a Pulitzer Prize; they like your books because they’re trendy, because they’re diverting, and that’s okay.
I couldn’t help but feel that Dicker’s book was exactly this: trendy and diverting. And that’s okay. For all of Dicker’s cynicism about the book industry and the values of the reading public, ready to snap up anything titillating, he has managed to produce a book that, while exposing the dynamics that produce such works, is also one itself. It’s a nifty trick - after all, he got me to buy and read his novel - and, as he must have hoped, he’s taken this bit of performance art all the way to the bank: La Vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert has become an international success. While I’m tempted to mumble, “Quelle déception!” as the French do when disappointed, I have to admit a grudging admiration for the cleverness with which I've been so thoroughly suckered. Can a movie adaptation be far behind?