Well, I hate to break it to you, but it's not that Harry I'm writing about. The characters in the movie had a lot of trouble with their Harry, but it's another Harry who's bugging me. My bête noir is Harry Quebert, as in Joël Dicker's The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair (translated from the French by Sam Taylor; Penguin, May 2014). Actually, not just Harry Quebert, but also the book's protagonist, Marcus Goldman and, most of all, their creator, Mr. Dicker, a 29-year-old Swiss writer.
Before I explain just what it is I have against these men and their book, I should back up a little. Normally, we don't write negative reviews of books on Read Me Deadly. This site is a place for us to talk about crime fiction and other books we enjoy and think that you would like. I've been reviewing books on Amazon and some other sites for a long time, and I don't hesitate to give our 1-star ratings there and to lay out blunt criticism. The purpose of reviews on those sites is to give potential buyers information to help them make a purchasing decision, so negative reviews are just as important as positive reviews. I gave The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair a single star, and that's only because Amazon doesn't allow anything lower. But obviously, that's not enough of a reason to bring my complaints over to Read Me Deadly.
Here's the thing. This book was an absolute sensation in Europe. It won the prestigious grand prize for novels from the Academie française and also the Prix Goncourt des lyceens. There was a sensation over the book at the 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair, with publishers fighting to win international publication rights. Penguin paid its largest-ever advance to win the rights to publish the book in the US. Ron Howard has optioned the movie rights. I figured I had to read this paragon, so I got the ebook on the publication date and started reading.
But now, Marcus is hopelessly blocked. (It's not a good sign that I already felt it was no more than this smug creep deserved.) Under tremendous pressure from his agent and rapacious publisher, he flees to the seaside town of Somerset, New Hampshire, to get help from his college mentor, the literary lion Harry Quebert.
Shortly after Marcus's visit, Harry is arrested for the murder of a teenage girl, Nola Kellergan, who had disappeared over 30 years earlier and whose body has just been found buried under Harry's lawn, along with the original manuscript of Harry's most famous novel, The Origin of Evil. Marcus decides he must investigate to clear Harry, and submits to his publisher's pressure to write a book about what is being called the Harry Quebert Affair. His publisher has told him that otherwise he will sue him for millions over his failure to produce his promised second novel. (Yeah, because that happens.)
It's quickly revealed that the then 34-year-old Harry had a love affair with the 15-year-old Nola. And as if that's not outrageous enough, he's not the only grown man in town to have had a thing for Nola. Author Dicker is coy about revealing exactly what was going on between Harry and Nola, but a sexual relationship is strongly hinted at. What Dicker does all too openly is to force his poor characters to spout overblown romantic guff––though at least I'll say it does sometimes have some comedy value, with deathless prose like this:
"As soon as he saw her, he felt his heart explode. He missed her so much. As soon as she saw him, she felt her heart explode. She had to speak to him."
From Harry Quebert's supposed masterpiece: "I will miss you my darling. I will miss you so much. I am crying. Inside, I am burning. We will never see each other again. I will miss you so much."
"Pleave excuve me, Mifter Quebert. I didn't mean to fcare you. But Miftern Ftern defperately wantf to fee you."
And I can't forget Dicker's bizarre ideas about Americans and American society. Dicker spares us much exposure to Marcus's mother, but she's definitely in the running for most offensively stereotypical Jewish mother ever:
That's nothing compared to Dicker's description of Marcus's African-American college roommate, who was the first in his family to go to college and couldn't believe he was allowed to go wherever he wanted, eat as much as he wanted in the dining hall, and so on. Y'know, because that was the state of progress in racial relations in the US in the 21st century. Dicker vacationed in Maine as a boy but, on behalf of my fellow Mainers, I want to disclaim all responsibility for his picture of the United States and Americans.
|Don't miss our beaches!|
No, seriously, drive too fast and you could.
Regular readers of crime fiction could sustain an injury from rolling their eyes at Dicker's descriptions of Marcus's role in the investigation of Nola's death. The chief police investigator makes constant sarcastic jabs at Marcus, but he lets him participate in the investigation, even after Marcus intentionally destroys evidence. Seriously!
Finally, in the final one-third or so of the book, we learn what happened to Nola that summer of 1975. Or do we? Over and over, the mystery appears to reach a resolution, but then we find out that the resolution was wrong. You soon learn that when the police investigator exclaims something like "we've got it this time!" it's another red herring. I guess some might be entertained by these twists and turns, but nobody who knows mystery writing will think it's anything but a bad joke.
|Not that I'm paranoid or anything, but is Joël Dicker|
laughing at me?
I noticed that a disproportionate number of the favorable print reviews seem to have been written by fellow authors. Over time, I've learned to be leery of those. Too often, authors feel obligations to agents, publishers or others they may have in common with the author of the book being reviewed. And authors quite often have very different priorities from readers. For example, Chelsea Cain, who said the book was "unimpeachably terrific" in the New York Times (the most audaciously wrong-headed thing I've seen in a review in a long time), has a book coming out just about now and no doubt thought that having a splashy review in the New York Times would be good for her sales.
What about those literary awards in France? One of them was based on the votes of high school kids––the core audience for the Kardashians and Justin Bieber––so that prize is meaningless. The award from the Academie française, though? That mystery was solved for me, at least potentially, by a book I recently read by Edward St. Aubyn, called Lost for Words. It's a satire of literary awards in which a panel giving out the prestigious (fictional) Elysian Prize for fiction connives, politicks, cheats and bumbles its way to awarding the prize to an Indian cookbook, submitted by accident, and which none of them has read. As I read the book, in my mind I just moved the action to France and I could see how something only too similar might have resulted in Joël Dicker's snagging his prize.
So the reason why I'm writing this negative review on Read Me Deadly is not just that this book is so bad that I want to try to save you from wasting your time and money on it. (You could spend those resources better by sitting on a rock for an entire day and throwing the money into a lake, one penny at a time.) I'm writing because the hype is constant, a juggernaut, and it needs to be countered before the sheeple in publishing get the idea that readers actually want more of this kind of thing. Penguin wants to be sure to earn back that monster advance, Amazon wants to cash in on the sensation, and they're pulling out all the stops, doing a publicity blitz to sell, sell, sell, before people learn just what trash this book is.
Note: Portions of this review may appear on Amazon and other reviewing sites under my usernames there.