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  • Ninay Desai

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is a cold case whodunnit delivered with literary flair. The plot takes you through many hairpin bends while the form and style of the writing make the ride pleasurable rather than merely efficient. Broadly, it is a book about two authors – Harry Quebert, a celebrated senior writer who is arrested for murder, 33 years after a fifteen-year-old girl that he loved goes missing; and Marcus Goldman his protégé who, struggling with writer’s block after his successful first novel, resolves to clear his mentor’s name.

A copy of The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker on a round wrought iron coffee table. Photo by Ninay Desai.

If you were to set aside the brief excerpt from a 911 call establishing the fifteen-year-old Nola’s disappearance, the book opens with a prologue depicting Marcus’ life post the best-selling success of his second book. It introduces us to Marcus as the protagonist and narrator. This opening also sets up the basic questions readers are likely to ask about the story that is yet to unfold, focussing majorly on the whodunnit aspect.

A shift from the usual is the numbering of the chapters as a countdown starting from 31 down to 1, building anticipation and setting off a subtle ticking clock in the reader’s mind. Dicker also uses a little graphic of a rectangle at the beginning of each chapter that denotes how much of the story has been read. That didn't appear to be of any major significance to me apart from being a design element.

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is structured into two timelines. The first is the year 2008 which follows the discovery of the dead body, the ensuing murder case and the writing of Marcus’ second novel. The second thread is from 1975 – and the events around the disappearance of the fifteen-year-old Nola. There is the added element of excerpts from the book that Marcus is writing.

To his credit, Dicker is flawless when it comes to signposting the setting and period that the characters are in, within the first few lines of each section. Not once in this 615-page book is the reader left scratching their head wondering where they are in the timeline of events. That’s no mean feat given the complex structure of the novel.

As a novel within a novel, The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair casts a sidelong glance at the cut-throat business of publishing and the kind of machinations that go into creating a buzz around a bestseller. Dicker portrays these tips and tricks of the business as a prism of spin that can refract even a faux pas into appearing like a glimmer of genius. An exchange between Marcus, the young writer and his cynical publisher on the conflict between freedom and economics is thought-provoking. In contrast, the teacher-student relationship between Harry and Marcus is concentrated mainly on the craft of writing. Each chapter begins with an excerpt of the mentor talking to his protégé about writing, boxing or life.

Joel Dicker weaves the political landscape of the United States in 2008 into the story giving it a sense of not unfolding in a vacuum. Since the political events that culminated in Obama’s historic victory are well-known to most readers, this device is effective without requiring too much space in exposition.

The three main characters – Marcus, Harry and Nola are dynamic and develop throughout the length of the novel. Most of the secondary characters are not one-note characters either and more importantly, have their own motivations. This creates several mini-geysers of conflict which keep the plot bubbling.

Dicker employs an array of mythological and literary allusions such as references to Icarus, fallen angels, ‘glory being a Gorgon that could turn you into stone’ and man’s Original Sin. Even Quebert’s celebrated book is called The Origin of Evil. Paradise Lost, anyone?

The plot of The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair illustrates the ripples of wrongdoing in the individual lives of characters flowing into and merging with each other. It also shows how the past informs the present. Other literary touches include motifs like Harry’s residence which comes to signify different things over the course of the story, symbolism, social commentary and satire that doesn’t shy away from looking inward at the narrator, the world of writers and the books they write.

While reading this novel, I was struck by the pride of place given to seagulls in it. I have a hunch that Joel Dicker was inspired by the characters and themes in Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. The play explores the ills of fame and how the pursuit of celebrity usually has disastrous effects. Chekhov’s characters view obscurity as an unbearable fate and grapple with the gulf between their dreams of success and the reality of their mediocrity. Harry, Marcus and a few other characters contend with the same issues. Imposter syndrome and the threat of being exposed as a pretender looms large in both the play and the novel.

Art being a replacement for love is another recurring idea in the story. At least three characters in the book are artists and all of them fill a void in their lives with writing or painting. To know out how it works out for them, you’d have to read the book. There’s a piece of advice Quebert gives Marcus –

"Never write a book without knowing its ending.”

That’s excellent advice for writers, I’m sure. Readers of this page-turner, however, are not likely to drop this book without knowing its ending.

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