Friday, August 15, 2014

The Trouble with Harry

Remember that 1955 quirky comedy/thriller directed by Hitchcock, with the ingenue Shirley MacLaine being romanced by the tall, dark and handsome John Forsythe? Set in Vermont in the fall and filmed in glorious VistaVision, all that marred the beautiful autumnal landscape was the pesky corpse of Harry, which kept popping up at the most inconvenient times and places.

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.

We begin with young writer Marcus Goldman, who gained huge acclaim and wealth with his first novel. So much wealth that he bought a fancy Manhattan apartment and is out on the town every night. So much acclaim that he's mobbed on the streets. Now this was my first clue that there was something wrong with this book. True, this is the age of celebrity in the US, but it isn't writers who get the major cash, the groupies and autograph-seekers, it's the people who need ghostwriters to tell their own stories, like the Kardashians and Justin Bieber.

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."

Unfortunately, those exploding hearts and burning insides are not fatal. Harry and Nola continue to play their parts in Somerset, a burg whose citizens behave like cartoon versions of that old-time celebration of small-town New England sin, Peyton Place. There are shrewish wives, henpecked husbands, tongue-tied swains, gossipy diner denizens, and a hideously scarred chauffeur with a speech impediment. And, yes, his dialog is presented with the impediment:

"Pleave excuve me, Mifter Quebert. I didn't mean to fcare you. But Miftern Ftern defperately wantf to fee you."

But most of all, there are people with deep dark secrets. If this description makes the book sound kind of fun, in a campy, soap-opera-ish way, I apologize. It isn't. None of the characters seem to have emotionally progressed beyond Nola's age––which doesn't make all the men lusting after her any more appropriate. The writing manages to be both purple and uninspired. I think it's because when the author writes with constant literal and figurative exclamation points, hyperbole and overblown description, the reader soon becomes dulled to it. Also, Dicker's writing is clichéd and he repeats himself––repeatedly! A good couple of hundred pages could have been edited out of this 656-page thing. It would still be bad, but at least there'd be less of it.

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:

"And who should I bump into today? Your secretary! It's a sign, Markie! She's not ugly, and, more important, she's full of estrogen! I can tell––women can smell that kind of thing. She's fertile, docile . . . she'd give you a child every nine months! I'll teach her how to raise the children, and that way they'll all be the way I want them to be! Isn't that wonderful?"

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.
You know how when you dislike someone or something, suddenly everything about them annoys you? That definitely happened to me here. It started to irritate me no end that everybody drinks lemonade all the time. And that Dicker writes as if New Hampshire is one long seacoast beach, stretching into infinity––instead of having a grand total of 18 miles of ocean coastline, the least of any oceanfront state.

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 stubbornly plowed through the book, thinking that there must be some saving grace, given all the hype. But it was just awful, all the way through. I was seriously thinking this all had to be some kind of elaborate hoax. I decided to try to find out why some people thought this was a great book.

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.

I found a few print reviewers who talked about what a terrific satire this is of the publishing industry and how interesting it is as a piece of metafiction––because it's a writer (Joël Dicker) writing about a writer (Marcus Goldman) writing about a writer (Harry Quebert). Puh-lease. To me, the real satire of the publishing business is that this novel was published at all. And as for metafiction, well, no matter how "meta" this might be, that bit of writerly cleverness can't elevate the terrible writing and plotting into something that serves the reader well.

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.

Even now, two months after I bought the (e)book and trashed it on Amazon, they're still relentlessly sending me emails urging me to rush right out and buy this sensational literary thriller. It's just twisting the knife, reminding me of how dumb I was to fall for the hype in the first place. Very often I get other email notices that somebody has commented on my Amazon review, but those commenters are complaining about having been snookered into reading this and wondering how it can possibly be that something so dreadful is being lauded and pushed so hard. We've practically become a support group.

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.

You have been warned. Resist the juggernaut!

Note: Portions of this review may appear on Amazon and other reviewing sites under my usernames there.


  1. Okay, Sister, don't be shy, tell us what you really thought of the book!

    I feel guilty, because I remember reading about the book's reception at the 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair and the intense bidding war to publish it, and I excitedly emailed you, telling you to be on the lookout for it. Here in the US, we have a huge, unsatisfied appetite for translated crime fiction, and Dicker's book sounded sensational.

    After two pages of The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, I thought, "What is going on?" Narrator Marcus Goldman is supposedly a hotshot literary writer, but his prose is completely lifeless. Dicker's hyperbole seems an attempt to give it life, but for me, it only created a 656-page equivalent of a fingernail scratching across a chalkboard. While the book didn't offend me in the same ways it offended you (Hey, I lived in New Hampshire, and our 18 miles of beachfront is lovely. Lovely!), I had to force myself to read to the end.

    I wondered if my problem appreciating it was caused by the translation, but Sam Taylor translated French writer Laurent Binet's HHhH, about the assassination of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich in Prague during World War II, and I really enjoyed that book.

    Since the Millennium trilogy, publishers and readers have longed for another Stieg Larsson. Obviously, you and I don't think Dicker is that guy, but then I hated Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, and look how popular that book is.

    I'd love to hear from others who read The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. What did you think of it?

    1. TTATHQA might not be absolutely the worst book I have ever read, but it is definitely the worst book relative to the degree of hype it generated. On the positive side it has narrative drive, but that is genuinely the only good thing I can say about it.
      Its faults include:
      Gruesomely unreal dialogue
      Unintentionally repellent characters
      Unbelievable plot-twists
      Blatant padding
      Lazy bloated sloppy English. Probably every fifth word could have been cut (out).
      Dire metaphors
      Racist and sexist stereotypes
      Cliches galore
      Laughable philosophical statements ('books never end')
      etc, etc

      The good news is that all of these appalling characteristics have now been condensed into a 200-page spoof entitled "The (Awful) Truth About the Herbert Quarry Affair". It was published for free on my blog. If you want a laugh, google peluxes blogger, and look for a post about Herbert Quarry.
      Hope you enjoy it

  2. Wow, I actually really enjoyed THE TRUTH ABOUT THE HARRY QUEBERT AFFAIR. Yes some of it was pretty cliche (the over the top cop and his strange allowance for Marcus's participation in the investigation, the twists at the end...) but I thought that added to the fun in the end.

    I work in publishing and enjoyed that aspect (yes it's overblown but had it been too realistic I likely would have hated reading about my day to day stress in book form).

    I almost feel like I need to defend my enjoyment of it, like maybe it was the mood I was in or the time I chose to read it, but I just plain liked it. If I read it again today I think I'd still like it just as much.

    1. Becky, I'm glad you commented. No two people have exactly the same taste; even people who agree on a lot of books will occasionally disagree. This is what makes discussing books so much fun and book recommendations imperfect.

      I would guess we agree more often than not, but I'm sure there's a book you hated that I loved.

    2. Oh, Georgette is so nice. But I'm a nun, so I'm not, bwah ha ha! Yes, Becky, you MUST defend your enjoyment of it or say three decades of the rosary. Your choice!

    3. Haha! It just fit, Sister Mary. Whatever the reason was, it fit :)

      Georgette, it's so true! I do rarely hate books - I'm generally able to find something I enjoy in most reads - but there have been a few and it's always so bizarre to see that they're books that generally get good reviews. It leaves me scratching my head wondering if I even read the same book!

  3. I take it you didnt like the book, huh Sis? I almost feel compelled to read it to see myself. But >600 pages is a bite too big to chew.

    1. Kev, I love complaining. Sometimes I get up a real head of steam. Can you tell?

  4. Agree with your review 100% (if anything, you go too easy!) - it feels like an enormous scam put over by a European publishing house on a hated American readership. However, I was not able to finish the book. Any chance you could post a (hidden) summary of the end? It's not exactly killing me, but I was about to donate this book and that spurred me to find out what happened. I would happily browse the end, but given the dozens of double-fake outs and red herrings, I'm not sure I'll actually know what happened without a close reading, and that I cannot stand to do. I have suffered enough! Please help!

    1. Oh, man, I can barely remember the book at this point––thank heavens. Frankly, about all I can remember is


      the cop did it.

      Does that help? I sure hope so.

    2. Hmmm, is that the chief of police at the time? Or the guy Marcus is investigating the whole thing with? Also, there is absolutely no redemption of Harry (ie, whatshername was not actually 15, or anything that mitigates that whole weirdness)?

      But even questions aside, thanks for the reply! :)


      It was the pair of cops who were called out when that Mrs. Coleman reported seeing Nola running through the woods. They killed Nola, Luther and Mrs. Coleman.

      The other big plot twist is that it was actually Luther who wrote the novel that made Harry's fame.

  5. Thank you. I have been an avid reader for most of my seventy nine years. I totally disliked this book. Repetitious, cliche ridden, too long.

  6. The good news is that it's unlikely you'll ever read a book this bad, though. So the worst is behind you!

    I haven't heard much about this being made into a movie lately. I wonder if it's been shelved?

  7. I came for the spoilers. Thanks. I made it half way through the book (it was a holiday read). Giving up not long after Luther found his voice. I was expecting you to say that Scooby doo turns up and Fred and Velma unmasked the baddie. Absolutely dreadful.

  8. Wait, did I forget to tell you about Scooby Doo? ;-)

  9. Thanks for the spoilers, the prospect of reading the remaining 300 words - well you know...

    1. Nancy, I'm impressed you had the gumption to quit so close to the end. I still can't believe I read the whole thing. Obviously, I'm a glutton for punishment.

      From the very first page, I suspected something was wrong. The prose was surprisingly leaden, given the narrator was supposedly a writer so gifted he was mobbed in the street. But there was that bidding war between publishers to win the right to publish, and I thought, "These opening pages must be a parody, and pretty soon, I'll see the 'real' writing." Nope.