Tuesday, September 27

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker


Hopefully anyone who's just skimming this page will see the above and associate it with this image and then refrain from spending actual time actually reading this terrible book.

Just like Graeme Macrae Burnet's His Bloody Project, the last book I reviewed on here, Joël Dicker's The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is an example of a novel that's been much better received by serious literary types than I can understand. Unlike His Bloody Project, though, which was an adept and enjoyable work, even though I don't get why it's on the Booker shortlist this year, Quebert is a silly, sloppy, flabby, idiot novel - a banquet of clichés pieced together with a nonsense plot and written by a teenager. And yet it won the 2012 Grand Prix du roman de l'Académie française and was nominated for the Goncourt, and it's an international bestseller. Hmm.

Briefly, the narrator, Marcus Goldman, a young celebrity novelist, decides to try to clear his mentor Harry Quebert, one of the greatest living American writers, who has been charged with murder following the discovery of a body in his garden. The body belongs to Nola Kellergan, a fifteen-year-old girl who went missing in 1975, and with whom the thirty-three-year-old Quebert had been having an affair. He basically ends up writing and publishing a tell-all book while leading the investigation (because, duh, that's how crime-fighting happens in America), and of course he finds all sorts of buried secrets beneath the friendly New-England-small-town veneer, revealed through interspersed flashbacks and documents. So far so compelling.

But the book lets itself down on every level. Let's start with the plot, which is multistranded and sprawling, but which very little effort has been made to make internally consistent. For example, on the same night Nola disappears in 1975, the old woman who sees her being chased through the woods is shot. However, because Dicker's decided that the novel's focus is going to be on Nola, everyone involved - from the police searching for Nola to the townspeople grieving for the missing girl to Marcus narrating in 2008 - completely forgets about the dead woman. Nobody really thinks to try to solve that mystery. She barely gets mentioned, to the point that I forget her name.

And this happens more than once over the course of the book. In the present day, people get killed, buildings get set on fire, suspects literally skip town overnight, and nobody really seems to care beyond the extent to which these acts affect the main question of who killed Nola? even though solving these peripheral mysteries is probably a much more direct route than going to the town diner and hoping to find someone to question about the events of thirty years ago which is how the investigation proceeds most of the time.

The police procedural aspects are just unbelievably bad. Towards the end of the book, Marcus and Gahalowood, his cop buddy, do a double facepalm because they FORGOT, legitimately FORGOT, to follow up a lead about events which happened in Alabama in the late '60s. As if neither of them, a WRITER, and a COP, thought to write it down. Later, an 'aha' moment comes when Gahalowood is casually looking at a key piece of evidence implicating a man they just arrested while IN THE DINER EATING HIS PANCAKES OR WHATEVER because maple syrup on incriminating photographs makes them even more persuasive to a jury.

And don't even get me started on the central love affair between Quebert and Nola, which is clearly intended to be the stuff of great literature - a love for the ages - but reads like a harlequin novel written by a teenager. Quebert falls in love with Nola at first sight when he sees her dancing in the rain on the beach, which is just sheer laziness on Dicker's part. In fact, we are told time and again about how Quebert found it impossible not to love Nola, as in this dialogue between Marcus and his secretary:
"Marcus, I think I'm crying."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because of that young girl, that Nola; I think I love her too."
I smiled and said, "I think everyone loved her, Denise. Everyone."
Yet all we see is a naïve child who is in turn manipulative, whiny, stalkery, and a little psycho. She's not smart or funny or anything to Quebert beyond a hero worshipper, which really underlines the creepiness inherent in the whole adult-child-relationship thing that Dicker tries so hard to make you think isn't actually problematic though it so is.

It's not just Nola who's a really bad character. Literally every single character in the book is an underbaked cliché.* There's the narcissistic celebrity novelist, the sage lovelorn mentor, the grumpy cop with a heart of gold, the shyster lawyer, the overbearing Jewish mother, the rich Harvard-educated businessman and his physically deformed chauffeur. There's the social-climber diner owner and her long-suffering husband. They talk like this:
"But my shirt is making me itch, honey-bunny."
"Shut up, Bobbo!"
When Marcus and Gahalowood visit a mechanic, they meet him with his head under an old Buick, which makes sense because he's a cliché. There's even a police chief who turns up in the last chapter to say you've got 24 hours to close this case! as if that's not a totally arbitrary deadline dreamt up to keep the tension going.

This isn't helped by the fact that the writing is ridiculous, which makes every character sound like an idiot whenever they open their mouth. Here's a phone call between Marcus and Gahalowood:
"I'm on the Interstate. I'm going to see Elijah Stern."
"So you really think he's mixed up in all this?"
"That's exactly what I'm hoping to find out."
"You're totally crazy, Goldman. That's what I like about you." 
Here's Marcus trying to comfort Quebert in prison:
I grabbed him by the shoulders. "We will always be friends. I won't abandon you. This book is the proof of my unfailing friendship."
Heck, at one point, Quebert, one of the world's greatest living writers, says "All I know is that Nola lived inside me, literally," which, this book won the Grand Prix, so, wow, is all I'm saying. The characters also do the remind-me-of-the-exposition...? thing way too often, as if they're lapsing into temporary amnesia, which might explain some of the plot holes.

Also the novel jumps between viewpoints pretty frequently, and will sometimes flirt with omniscience in a terrifically annoying, fourth-wall-breaking way. We'll get haphazard snatches of each character's thoughts in a manner totally unbefitting a murder mystery. Or one minute Nola will be thinking about how excited she is that she's going to see Quebert, and then we'll get a... she did not notice the figure hidden in the bushes. That's a real line from the book. I didn't make it up.

I finished the book though. I guess I thought it would get better, or have a satisfying conclusion, and there were one or two (actually one) halfway decent twists, but the solution was convoluted and had a bit of a comedy-of-errors feel to it, so even that didn't satisfy.

Oh man. I could go on. There's so many truly scathing reviews on Goodreads with some exceptional examples of why this is an awful book and you should never read it. But there's also a crazy amount of gushingly positive reviews, so go and try to reconcile all that because I just can't. I'm so confused.

Notes on the audiobook:

Robert Slade's narration is the best thing about this book. It's still pretty bad. He has two voices, moderately angry and moderately whiny, and the nasal New England accent doesn't help things. I think that I would have liked the book slightly more reading it the old-fashioned way (slightly, mind). But then again, I probably wouldn't have had the stamina to finish it if I had to actually hold something and move my eyes back and forth, so there are no winners here.

Rating: 1/5
Amazon: The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair
Audible: The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair
Goodreads: The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair

* I was talking to Daisy about how everyone in the book was a New England small town / police procedural cliché. She then proceeded to guess every single character in the book with no prompting. She's psychic and everything, but the point that I'm making is that the book is bad.

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