Heavyweight hit thriller shows big can be bountiful
The massive success of Jöel Dicker’s 600-page murder mystery proves that rumours of the demise of weighty tomes have been greatly exaggerated
Joël Dicker: ‘It’s absolutely not a paedophile story. But I was afraid that maybe some publisher could see it as politically incorrect and turn down the book for this reason.’ Photograph: Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images
It’s a funny old business, book publishing. We’ve heard a lot of talk about how there’s no money and nobody has time to read more than two consecutive paragraphs any more and it has all gone short and snappy and digital.
And yet the book everyone is talking about in UK publishing this summer is an arm-breaking 600-page whodunnit, a Dickens-sized tome that will cost a hefty £20 in hardback.
Joël Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is the story of a young author, Marcus Goldman, whose debut novel turns him into an overnight sensation – but who gets a bad dose of writer’s block when he tries to start his second. He decides to spend a few weeks by the sea in New Hampshire at the home of his mentor Harry Quebert, himself a highly respected novelist.
During his stay, Marcus discovers that in 1975, Harry – then aged 34 – had a relationship with a 15-year-old girl called Nola Kellergan, who subsequently disappeared.
When Nola’s body is dug out of Harry’s garden and Harry is carted off to jail, Marcus sets out to prove the older man’s innocence.
In the book Marcus is young, successful and good-looking. And lo, here is the author: young, successful, good-looking. But Dicker insists that he is not Marcus. When he wrote The Truth About Harry Quebert, he was an unpublished law graduate.
“It’s an amazing coincidence that the success of my book happened to me at the same age as Marcus,” he says. “But, on the other hand, if somebody reads my book in 50 years’ time, they may say to me: ‘Aha. You are Harry. You have based the book on Harry’.”
No heart attack
Did Dicker’s French publisher not have a heart attack when he arrived with this huge manuscript?
“No, because I sent it to him by email,” he says. “I was very afraid that he would say, ‘What is this huge pile of paper? You are killing the woods, killing trees.’ Also, I was trying to delay because I was afraid he would turn it down. So I was saying, ‘Oh, it’s very big, I can’t possibly print it out.’
“And he said, ‘Don’t worry. Send it by email.’ I said, ‘Are you sure?’ He insisted, and I said ‘okay’. And he called me the day after and said, ‘I’ve read it already. I love it.’ ”
Dicker writes like he talks. He loves repetition and embellishment, and peppers his meandering plot with wacky, offbeat dialogue; between Marcus and his perpetually worried Jewish mother, for example, or the unflappable New Hampshire state policeman who takes the young writer under his wing.
Towards the end, as the solution to the mystery approaches, Dicker lobs one scenario after another at the reader as if he can’t bear to let the book end. She done it. No, he did. Or – guess what? How about this guy for a suspect?
At the heart of the book is the relationship between Harry and Nola, which is controversial, to say the least. And yet it is curiously chaste, if not bloodless. Why?
“I was very interested in this love affair between a young girl and an older guy because it’s just about feelings,” says Dicker.
“The point of the story is not that she’s much younger than Harry. It’s absolutely not a paedophile story. But I was afraid that maybe some publisher could see it as politically incorrect and turn down the book for this reason. So I decided not to mention any sex scene. I was afraid of sexualising Nola too much.”
It was a failure of nerve that, in retrospect, he regrets. “It’s definitely a mistake. I should have taken my responsibility as an author and said, ‘Either she is 15 and whatever happens happens, and you accept what people will say, or you make her 20 and it’s all okay’.”
In its French incarnation, The Truth About Harry Quebert sold more than two million copies. It will be interesting to see what English-language readers make of it.
What’s next for Dicker? Will we see the publication of his other work in English immediately? “No, because what is challenging for me is to write, to create,” he says. “I feel like I’ve improved a lot, book after book, and also I have learned a lot from writing Harry Quebert. So I’m very keen, as soon as I’ve finished this promotional tour, to write a completely new story.”
The Truth About Harry Quebert is published by MacLehose Press
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