Two of the main characters in this much-hyped thriller, a prize-winning sensation when it was published in Europe two years ago, sit on the terrace of a New Hampshire seaside restaurant in August and order “eggs, toast and pancakes.” Both guys are fitness buffs, so what’s with all the calories — and on a hot day? It’s one of many weird, inexplicable things people do in this Big Gulp of a pop novel that’s kind of enjoyable in a corn-syrupy way.
It’s hard to tell how much the author means for readers to take seriously in this tale of a teenaged girl murdered in 1975 and the grisly solution to the crime 33 years later. There are some nice satirical touches about small-town New England life (novelist Joel Dicker is Swiss but spent childhood summers in Maine), as when a woman invites a competing social climber to her garden party but neglects to set a place for her at the luncheon table. Most of the humor, though, is inadvertent, as with the numerous characters whose names look like anagrams or maybe typographical errors. There’s Lydia Gloor, Stephanie Larjinjiak and — my favorite — a black New Hampshire state police detective named Perry Gahalowood. Every time he got something right, I could hear Doris Day singing, “Hooray for Gahalowood.”
Another character in “The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair,” Luther Caleb, has a severe speech impediment, the result of a savage beating he suffered as a young man. But Dicker’s — or more likely the translator’s — reproduction of Caleb’s hard-to-follow dialogue triggers not sympathy, the apparent desired effect, but the reader’s embarrassed confusion.
These are minor, if often annoying, distractions from a story line that is deadly earnest. Marcus Goldman is a self-important but insecure young writer panicked over being unable to come up with another hit novel two years after being declared “the new darling of American letters.” His publisher is threatening to sue Goldman for millions because he has apparently been paid for the second novel, which he hasn’t produced, but he remains blocked until he is drawn from New York to Somerset, N.H. That’s where his old mentor and pal, the famous novelist Harry Quebert, has been charged with homicide in the death of his 15-year-old lover, Nola, more than three decades after her disappearance. Goldman can’t believe the great Quebert, author of the classic love story “The Origin of Evil,” is guilty of murder, and he sets out to find the real killer and write a book about it. Goldman’s publisher is elated. He remarks that “people are buying fewer and fewer books these days except when they contain squalid stories that correspond to their own worst urges.”
In New Hampshire, multiple complications arise for Goldman, including anonymous death threats. He perseveres, though, and Dicker’s big finish — twist after twist after twist, revealing that just about everybody in seaside New Hampshire has something hideous to hide — is neatly and entertainingly pulled off.
To get to this borderline-plausible conclusion, however, readers must keep straight innumerable flashbacks and flash-forwards and novels within novels, many of which feel redundant. It doesn’t help that pompous, emotionally unstable Quebert is hard to stomach as he mourns the lost Nola, with whom he was planning to elope the day she vanished. Yes, running off with a kid sounds unwise and grotesque, but Nola persuaded Quebert with lines such as, “What’s the point of living if we’re not allowed to love?” Nola, it turns out, may have been waterboarded by her mother, so her dialogue — there’s pages of this stuff — might be forgiven on those grounds.
Dicker includes occasional short lessons on writing, advice Quebert passed on to the aspiring novelist Goldman during his college years. These range from “only write fiction. Anything else will just bring trouble” to some murky, Zen-like admonitions about “knowing how to fall.”
As maladroit as this novel is in so many ways, it churns along at such a good clip and is rendered with such high emotion and apparent deep conviction that it’s easy to see why it was a bestseller in Europe. It’s likely to be one in this country, too, where in the land of bestsellerdom, earnest lardiness counts for a lot.
Lipez writes the Don Strachey private eye novels under the name Richard Stevenson.
THE TRUTH ABOUT THE HARRY QUEBERT AFFAIR
By Joel Dicker
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor
Penguin. 641 pp. Paperback, $18