Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Shelf Esteem: The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair

The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker
Shelf Worth: 1/5


The truth about The Harry Quebert Affair? It's crap. I wish I were the sort of person who could calmly go "Oh this book was bad? Never mind," but this gave me rage eye. Tat HQ is a real screamer; the sort of magnificently awful book to sharpen hatchets over while idly eyeing up your kitchen knives.

Marcus Goldman is a 20-something literary sensation who has hit it big with a non-fiction thriller after a spectacular period of writer's block followed the success of his debut novel. Instead of working on his second, Goldman joyfully spent his money on a New York apartment, parties, a TV girlfriend and other things that bestselling authors require. I had no idea debut literary novels paid so well. Perhaps his publisher is funded by the Mafia?

His mentor is his old literary professor Harry Quebert (the pronunciation of which gets an entire paragraph midway through), who had dazzling success in the '70s with his novel The Origin of Evil. Each chapter opens with Mr Quh-bear's writing advice to Marcus, whom he treats as a surrogate son rather than an annoying twit with a lust for greatness but no desire to work for it.

Marcus has cast Harry aside during his party year, until writer's block hits and he needs help. Soon his publisher is on at him, issuing dark threats about suing and demanding a second novel quickly. Thank God he doesn't represent Donna Tartt.

Marcus is caught up in a darker scenario altogether when the body of a 15-year-old girl, Nola, who went missing in 1975, is found in Harry's back yard along with a manuscript of The Origin of Evil. Harry is arrested, Marcus zooms to his little New Hampshire town to offer support, the old police investigation is dusted off and soon, cans of worms are bustin' up all over, much to the delight of Marcus's publisher who points him towards using his access to the story to write a salacious bestseller.

Dicker gets tension going early on and there are some lovely lines on writing, and a potentially moving relationship between Marcus and Harry. This soon goes overboard in favour of exposition of the "Peter sees Jane. Look Peter, look" variety. Harry keeps telling Marcus what a brilliant writer and good guy he is and how his genius work is just round the corner (we see none of these things). People keep recognising Marcus and telling him how amazing his book is - authorial wish fulfilment here, surely, to say nothing of an almost mythical cross-readership literary/commercial success. Who is this man, JK Rowling?

Marcus starts his own criminal investigation, helped by the fact that, in this universe, being a writer who's friends with a suspect is apparently the secret key that allows you to bypass years of police training or even basic confidentality. There is one GLORIOUSLY terrible moment when he sneaks into a sealed-off crime scene and, when confronted by an armed officer, shouts "Please don't shoot for God's sake! I'm Marcus Goldman! Writer!" The cop, naturally, recognises the name because ALL AMERICA has read Marcus's staggering work.

Dicker very sensibly doesn't let us actually read Marcus's first novel, but we do get to read his second - the non-fiction account of the trial. It is Not Good. Neither is Harry's, allegedly the second coming of fiction, but really a series of bad love letters. Dicker should never have put any of it in.

And what was Sam Taylor, the translator, doing all this time? I dearly hope he was giggling into his bank statements because this French Dan Brown deserves its own article compiling dreadful sentences. Marcus's publisher is as grubby and two-dimensional as a flattened shit. Marcus's mother comes pre-popped from the Jewish Stock Mother catalogue. Every young woman lusts after Harry, despite him genuinely lacking any appealing traits beyond apparently the most crucial: just being a writer from New York. Meanwhile, a social climbing mother enjoys dialogue so wooden that Greenpeace could file a writ for illegal deforestation. And let's quietly draw a line under poor Luther, a disfigured chauffeur whose speech is mortifyingly spelled out like Terry Pratchett's Igor.

Buried deep under the writing is a thriller and it at least does the job of keeping the twists coming. If it weren't for the deep line of misogyny that runs through so many of the characters, Tat HQ would only be endearingly terrible. Lawyers, policemen, publishers refer to Nola - who has a chequered life but is, let's just go over this again, a 15-year-old child - as a slut, or slutty. Her ability to entrance men is described in detail that I can only describe as icky. There is nobody in Dicker's universe who goes "Whoa, guys, hang about here: this female is basically an infant".

Dicker's life has reflected his hero's: this book has apparently won awards, global translation rights and Ron Howard is due to direct the film, which got me reading in the first place. I often dislike film version of books because they lose so much of the original. In the case of The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair, that can only be a good thing.
Harry put his hands to his chest, and collapsed.

"Tell me Marcus! Tell me, in your own words. I want to hear it from you. Your words are always so well chosen. Tell me what happened on August 30, 1975!"

9 comments:

  1. *applauds* That was actually gloriously restrained. Unlike the book, apparently.

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  2. I started reading it in Spanish and was awful, but I though it must be because of the translation. I am now waiting for the English translation, I am starting to think that maybe I wasn't wrong.

    I quit on page 70 because I hated the narrator and what is it about women being stupid, seductive mistresses?

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    1. *leans seductively against a wall, fringe waving beautifully over heavily made-up eye

      I've absolutely no idea what you're talking about B and R.

      Marcus is a massive idiot. He has NO FRIENDS! No friends except Harry, and then only very vaguely. The Marcus the Magnificent bits (not featured in review, this book is 613pp) nearly made me howl.

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  3. That quote at the end is magnificent. Are we sure that Joel Dicker isn't the pen name of Adrian Mole?

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    1. Lo! The Flat Hills of My Mentor's Backyard.

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  4. You know when you said it was bad? I really wasn't expecting it to be this bad. Wowser.

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    1. It certainly makes you appreciate the good ones all the more. We can't have The Goldfinch every day, more's the pity!

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  5. BRAVE Kat, finishing the awful book, suffering so we don't have to! I salute you.

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    1. I read really, really fast THANK THE HEAVENS!

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