The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair: Cult Classic or Mainstream Blockbuster?

By Georgia de Chamberet

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, translated by Sam Taylor, is twenty-eight-year-old Swiss author Joël Dicker’s second novel and third published book. It sold two million copies in a year, in 42 territories, and has won three French literary prizes. The New York Times has given it the thumbs up: “His darkly comic debut thriller (already a blockbuster in Europe!) is unimpeachably terrific.” So much for the Swiss only producing cuckoo clocks . . .

A good translation can mean a book flies across borders, and like any well-produced commodity, will open up the market for the genre. From Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow to Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Christopher Maclehose is a master hand at finding the Next Big Thing.

On one level, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is a literary thriller centered around the disappearance of a fifteen-year-old New Hampshire girl whose body is found thirty years later—in the backyard of a Great American Novelist. On another, it is a book about writing, success, and the publishing game, and that perennial bugaboo: writer’s block. Marcus Goldman, a bestselling young author, sets out to clear his mentor's name and find inspiration for his second novel as he comes under mounting pressure from his New York agent and publisher to deliver another blockbuster—whatever the cost.  

The son of a bookseller and a French teacher, Dicker graduated from the University of Geneva with a law degree in 2010. He has toured the world almost non-stop promoting his novel (while still finding time to marry his long-term sweetheart in Greece in May). He wears his newfound fame with ease and charm, apparent at the UK launch at the Swiss Ambassador's Residence during a Q&A session with Daily Telegraph books editor Gaby Wood. At the core of the novel lies the conundrum of what gives meaning to life: this is the uniting issue for all the characters. He emphasised that why this particular novel has been such a success and read by so many remains an unanswerable question; “Such is the magic of books.” In the French text there is not one English word even though it is set in North America; Dicker was adamant, “I see no need to use foreign words to express the atmosphere of a foreign country.” Taylor had to add English and American words in his translation. The novel is displayed in both the literary fiction and crime sections of bookstores, although it is not crime fiction per se since, as its author pointed out,  “If you take out the crime it still works since the crime is on the first page of the book which is all about what happens to the people around Nola Kellergan, the catalyst, so it is a novel.” 

Veteran French publisher Bernard Fallois distributed Dicker's first novel, The Last Days of Our Fathers, for his friend, the co-founder of Swiss publishing company Éditions L'Âge d'homme, Vladimir Dimitrijevic, who died suddenly in June 2011. Having read Dicker’s all-but-completed second novel, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, Fallois took over as Dicker’s publisher: “It was the first time in twenty years I had read a manuscript so avidly. I could not tear myself away from it. We sometimes use the expression, ‘a novel that you cannot put down’—such was this one."

Clever plotting and a series of twists at the end give the novel good pace: by page four hundred I thought I would falter, but did not. It truly is a page-turner. There are shades of Updike (the outsider in a small-town milieu); seascapes like an Andrew Wyeth painting; and scenes with Nola Kellergan in her red dress which are reminiscent of Lolita and Twin Peaks. The most entertaining aspect of the book lies in the way one writer is writing a book about the events surrounding another writer writing a book. (My favorite of this genre remains George Axelrod's brilliantly funny memoir Where am I now when I need me?) Dicker has thoroughly absorbed and digested American culture—and given it back in a masterly rendition. The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is a triumph of authorial audacity


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