Crime fiction,  International

The Truth About the Harry Querbert Affair by Jöel Dicker

I first encountered The Truth About the Harry Querbert Affair by Jöel Dicker last August, here, in Spain. The book was being promoted as an international best-seller, a debut crime novel by an Austrian writer who had already been top of the literary charts in the rest of Europe. So, as you can imagine, I bought it. Imagine my surprise when I found a corny, deeply affected and verging-on-chauvinistic novel. I thought it was me: it was summer, I was tired, and all the likes, so I tried to keep reading. I gave up on page 80. Imagine my surprise when the English translation hit Twitter a few months back. I know myself and I know that I very much prefer reading in English than in Spanish, so, I wrote about all this to the publishers and they kindly sent me a review copy, and not only that, a signed review copy!

But the real question is, did my dislike of the book have to do with the translation?


From Goodreads:

August 30, 1975: the day fifteen-year-old Nola Kellergan is glimpsed fleeing through the woods before she disappears; the day Somerset, New Hampshire, lost its innocence.

Thirty-three years later, Marcus Goldman, a successful young novelist, visits Somerset to see his mentor, Harry Quebert, one of America’s most respected writers, and to find a cure for his writer’s block as his publisher’s deadline looms. But Marcus’s plans are violently upended when Harry is suddenly and sensationally implicated in the cold-case murder of Nola Kellergan—whom, he admits, he had an affair with. As the national media convicts Harry, Marcus launches his own investigation, following a trail of clues through his mentor’s books, the backwoods and isolated beaches of New Hampshire, and the hidden history of Somerset’s citizens and the man they hold most dear. To save Harry, his writing career, and eventually even himself, Marcus must answer three questions, all of which are mysteriously connected: Who killed Nola Kellergan? What happened one misty morning in Somerset in the summer of 1975? And how do you write a successful and true novel?

The answer is: the English translation was less affected than the Spanish, but in short, no. The novel still had all the features that first bugged me *. To begin with, Marcus Goldman is an egocentric, self-absorbed, too proud and self-tortured writer. The English translation did not help this and even though some may think this makes for a complex, unlikable narrator, it does not. All throughout the novel he kept reminding me of a parody of Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby, probably because of his obsession to write “the next great American novel”. He defines himself as “writer” first and foremost and all the other characters call him that, making it a horrible time for him even though he is fighting to be a writer once again. I thought he was also quite incoherent, but, once the novel was over and I had his name engraved in my mind – for everyone seems to know it as if “Marcus” had the same connotations as “Ernest” does for us, book lovers – I discovered that he just wanted to be the center of attention, no matter what. Also, the reader establishes a conneciton between Goldman and Dicker and it is almost impossible to evade it.

The Harry Querbert from the title is another story. He is a literature professor at a small, East coast college and he seems to have gotten Marcus from the start. Furthermore, he challenges him and is constantly trying to upset him and make him come out of his comfort zone. All that, until he is jailed for the alleged murder of Nora Kellergan, and then Harry becomes a poor, fragile, old man who is in desperate need of Marcus. His apparently amazing life on a big house by the sea, in a little town that respects him ends up being an only a façade that clever Marcus dismantles, only for Harry to tell him not to commit the same mistakes he did: Marcus should marry and not end up completely alone in life. And I will come back to the marriage issue in the next paragraph.

But what I found most unsettling was Nola Kellergan’s character. She is the 15-year old who was murdered back in 1975. I will spoil some of the supposed fun here and tell you that 33 year-old Harry had an affair with Nola. I know, Lolita is there, it is a classic and most people love it, fine. It was not the age difference what really shocked me, it was how ideal Nola was, for a retrograde 1950’s ideal of a woman. And what I found most unsettling was that such a model could – and actually does – to nowadays audiences. Nola is constantly taking care of Harry, she wants to marry him, so that she can take care of him and he can write. She says to him, “I am nothing without you” and then, she is described in her perfection as “She was discreet, invisible, omnipresent.” So, there you have it. All these years my mom’s, and my grandmothers’ generations have fought to be heard, for acknowledging that they were there, and now an international best-seller constructs the epitome of femininity and desirability as an invisible and voiceless woman. But not even the author knows how to catalogue Nora: she is described both as a child and as sexual, grown-up woman who is manipulative and uses sex – sex she does not want to have – to save her man. That is the discourse behind Nora, who also happens to be Southern and raises a lot of questions about the construction of Southern women in American (and now international) literature. Eventually, in Harry’s writer Heaven, Nora becomes what he really wanted: a character, someone who is his creation and is completely under his control. Need I say more?

So, you may be wondering why I read this. For a start, I thought it was partly duty and partly curiosity. I cannot have a crime fiction blog and do not read the latest international best seller. Or I thought it shouldn’t be so, from now on I will evaluate the impact of the novel and my choices more carefully. But, another great reason is that The Truth About the Harry Querbert Affair is a page-turner in a very classical, masculine and patriarchal way. It is more the story of the relationship between Marcus and Harry, a sidekick to a great man. Disciple and pupil. Professor and student. And because it is so masculine – there are lots of boxing, sports and classically constructed men’s values and strengths  involved- the story suffers. Love interests are unambitious blonde girls, women want nothing more than to get married or help the main characters, and, finally, Goldman’s mother is the most overt representation when she tells Marcus to get married to a girl who can have a child every 9 months.

There were goo things too, and they mostly had to do with the way the novel is constructed. I read somewhere that it is a very post-modern novel and, if you take into account the structure, it really is. The chapters include Marcus’ reality plus, at least, two other levels of written fiction and I am ignoring the stories and lies characters tell to each other, because if I include them, the whole novel is a riddle. I think Dicker did an amazing job at structuring his debut novel and also at keeping the pace. There were only a few times in the 800-long page book that I lost interest, and it was not for longer than 10 pages. Dicker really wants the reader to keep reading and he does a good job at making it easy for us.

Would I recommend The Truth About the Harry Querbert Affair to anyone? Yes. And why? Because all-and-clasically masculine crime fiction productions seem to be on the rise again. True Detective and Sherlock are only two other great examples of this. This new fahsion could bring us down, but I think it makes for the perfect time to ask ourselves why these productions succeed and why, even when we criticize it – guilty – we are able to read and watch them.

* Disclaimer: I was glad I did not like this novel is because I have been very, very lucky with all the review copies I have been getting and, some months ago, I thought that either I was losing it with books or I had finally discovered what I am trully passionate about. Turns out I had no reason to be worried. Thanks to everyone who keeps recommending/offering me books. You nail it 99% of the time.




  • Claire 'Word by Word'

    I persevered and read this too and it reminded me too of The Great Gatsby, not just the indictment of society at the time, but the fact that the book was anticipated to be a best seller in the US and it seems that it isn’t having the same success and there are some interesting posts that dissect why that is so. Interestingly, someone who reads translated fiction said that she observed her own reaction when she realised it was a story about America, making her ask herself why she read translated fiction and what it was she was looking for.

    Your comments about the women he has created in Nola are interesting, I found too many of the characters including Nola too much of a cliche. I didn’t believe in the authenticity of her character, when I thought of that diner, it was like watching a scene out of ‘Back to the Future’.

    Crime isn’t my usual genre, but if its literary I ‘ll read it, for me it was the fact it was translated that attracted and seeing it here in France doing so well, but there were too many twists for me, it actually made me lose interest in solving the murder! I’d had enough.

    However, I admire the efforts of the author and his success and love seeing any translated work do well. I’m with you on choosing well in the first place.

    • Elena

      You make a great point, Claire, regarding Nora as a cliché. I guess that comes from being constructed as an idea of a girl/woman rather than a complex, realistic character.

      About reading translated fiction, I honestly do not pay much attention to that: if I like a crime novel, I’ll pick it. But I do have to admit that I have a preference for Britishness in writing, if that’s a thing. At least Spanish literature is very ornate, but I prefer British crime ficiton because it’s more direct (I know these are clichés as well, but it comes from my experience as a reader).

      I’m happy to find another non-Querbert fan. It seems everyone loves the book…

  • MarinaSofia

    I too was puzzled as to why this novel won so many awards. I found it reasonably OK as a plot and interesting (the writing of the novel self-absorbtion, postmodern part of it), but otherwise very pedestrian and full of clichés. And a rather superficial view of America, quite possibly.

    • Elena

      Totally true. Also, what is it with middle-age men and young women/girls? I am puzzled that the affair is justified and that readers like it…

  • WordsAndPeace

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book.
    I hate the Great Gatsby and I don’t like Lolita that much either, but I thought this one was superb – I still need to find time to review it. Marcus is from a totally different social background form Gatsby, and it did make a difference for me. He is a young writer trying to find himself, and having published a couple of books myself, I know how disparate you can be for trying to be successful at that. I thought the relationship between Nola and Harry, at least the way it was described had nothing to do with Lolita. There’s actually no explicit sex scene between them, and he keeps telling her it cannot be. The night they may finally elope together never happened.
    And mostly I thought the book was awesome in its structure, the way it was composed, and also as a book within a book.
    I enjoyed how it was also built around reflections on the art of writing. Definitely not your usual mystery novel!
    I thought through its complexity it did go way beyond clichés. Nola’s character is way more complex than it seems at first glance.
    And the mystery kept leading you the reader to false clues. I liked the way things unraveled, and were rebuilt after having deconstructed everything.
    I’m French, but read it in its English translation. Never did I have the feeling that it was a translation. I’m a translator myself and can sometimes say that a novel “stinks translation”.

  • crimeworm

    Thanks for your very honest review Elena – I’ve had the book for months, but the size of it has put me off until now. I found True Detective such a great story I really didn’t pay much attention to all the women being wives/mistresses/prostitutes. For me, it was a story abut the two male characters and the crime (of course, the victim was a vulnerable woman…!) But the question is whether this story is strong enough to get me past that again. From reading your review, I feel less inclined to read it – though I will at some point. However, WordsAndPeace made me feel I COULD enjoy it, if only to see the story’s structure. Great review and some great comments. I really must get back to spending more time reading books rather than the wonderful blogs I come across while writing my own!

    • Elena

      Thanks for the comment! I do really think that our minds are taught to enjoy these kind of stories where women play a minor or even a non-existent role. We live in a patriarchal society, after all. However, once one learns to see the flaws in gender representation, it is very difficult – I’d say impossible – to ignore them. I loved True Detective and I believe the first 5 episodes should have earned an Oscar nomination, but at the end of the day, it is within each of us to ask ourselves why we enjoyed it despite the lacking of women (and I’d add here queer representations as well) and why audiences are responding so well to such classical ideas.

  • Alex

    I’m not certain now whether I should get hold of a copy of this. As you say, it is the book that is sweeping the continent and as such I would normally try and read it, but I have bad experiences in the past with books bearing this accolade both in the realm of crime fiction and in the world of children’s literature, which I also inhabit. I think this is going to have to go on the library order so that if I give up a couple of hundred pages in I am not going to feel so bad about it.

    • Elena

      I think borrowing it from the library is a great idea. I only read it because I got a review cooy in English, otherwise I had totally given up on the Spanish translation. Please come back so we can talk about it when you finally read it.

  • amanda

    It’s interesting to me to read your review, Elena. I’d heard so many great things about this novel and high expectations for it in the U.S., but just in the past week or two, I’ve read some less than favorable reviews. It doesn’t particularly sound appealing to me, so I probably won’t read it, but reading about it is interesting nonetheless.

      • amanda

        I’m not sure where the distinction lies between mysteries and crime fiction (darkness?), but I do like mysteries and thrillers, so I wouldn’t necessarily say I wouldn’t like crime fiction. Just haven’t read much!

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