The physical book may well be under threat from the digital revolution, but a growing number of crime writers have decided that books are more dangerous than endangered. In the past couple of months alone Pierre Lamaitre's Irene, Chris Pavone's The Accident and Liz Nugent's Unravelling Oliver have told stories revolving around fictional books – and that's old-fashioned paper-and-cardboard ones, not newfangled ebooks – that offer their characters plausible motives for mayhem and murder.
The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, the second novel by the Swiss author Joël Dicker, although his first to be translated into English, is the latest thriller to suggest that an obsession with books can prove fatal.
It opens with a 28-year-old author, Marcus Goldman, enjoying a celebrity lifestyle in New York courtesy of his bestselling and critically acclaimed debut novel. At least he appears to be enjoying the life of a literary superstar: the toast of Manhattan's elite, he is rich, famous and the most eligible bachelor in town. The truth is that he should have begun his second novel a long time ago but has a severe case of writer's block – and a fast-approaching deadline.
Desperate to get back into his writing routine, Goldman contacts his former professor and mentor, Harry Quebert. Now living in splendid isolation in the remote New Hampshire town of Somerset, Quebert was acclaimed a genius and the leading light of his generation when he published The Origins of Evil, in the mid 1970s. He urges Goldman to abandon New York and come to Somerset to find the peace of mind he needs to write.
Shortly after Goldman arrives in Somerset the remains of a young girl are dug up on Quebert's property. When the body is identified as that of Nola Kellergan, a 15-year-old girl who went missing in 1975, Quebert confesses to Goldman that he had been in a relationship with Nola when she disappeared. When it is discovered that the skeleton is clutching a handwritten manuscript of The Origins of Evil, Quebert is arrested and charged with Nola's murder.
The book within a book doesn't end there. Determined to clear his friend's name, Goldman embarks on an investigation in tandem with a police detective, Perry Gahalawood, planning to publish the results of his findings as a book called The Harry Quebert Affair.
A publishing sensation even before its translation into English, Dicker's The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair has already sold more than two million copies, with translation rights sold for 32 countries. Described as a literary thriller, it has been compared to the work of Jonathan Franzen and Philip Roth. This is, presumably, on the basis that it is so firmly embedded in the publishing industry: a novel narrated by an author who is investigating the literary origins of a famous author's novel while writing a book about his investigations. And each chapter is prefaced with a short dialogue between the younger Marcus Goldman and his mentor, in which Quebert offers his rules for writing.
Despite its extensive engagement with writers and the business of writing, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is by no means a literary thriller. Its prose is neither elegant nor eloquent, and although language often suffers in translation, it's worth noting that the translator here, Sam Taylor, also translated Laurent Binet's superb HHhH.
That said, Dicker isn’t responsible for how his novel is marketed, and the book doesn’t read as if it were written for a literary audience.
Its take on writer’s block, for example, is the unsophisticated notion of an author staring for weeks on end at a blank page, or feverishly scrawling the same word over and over. A novel is routinely declared “great” or “a masterpiece” while its author is still halfway through its first draft; the story is chock-a-block with reversals of fortune and explosively dramatic revelations rather than the nuanced characterisations and narrative developments we have come to expect from John le Carré and similar masters of the literary thriller.
Indeed, from early on it’s clear that Dicker’s ambition is to write a pacy, melodramatic potboiler. The rustic New England setting is deftly sketched, but realism is otherwise at a premium: the depiction of the publishing industry errs on the grotesque side of parody, for example, and it’s highly unlikely that a hard-boiled New England cop would agree to allow a bestselling novelist to hijack his murder investigation with the stated intention of establishing the innocence of a man accused of murdering a child.
Characters fall in love at the drop of a manuscript, and there are enough skeletons in closets to dance a conga down Main Street. The crucial revelation that drives the novel’s final stages, meanwhile, appears to have been parachuted in from another kind of novel entirely.
By that point, however, and having already negotiated a couple of thrillers' worth of improbable twists and turns, you're likely to be conditioned to forgive Dicker virtually any kind of narrative extravagance. The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is thriller escapism writ large, irrepressibly exuberant storytelling that tramples realism underfoot as it rattles along at a thunderous pace.
Yet for all its clunky dialogue and lurid melodrama, there is an endearing quality to Marcus Goldman’s – and even Dicker’s – faith in the genre’s fundamental conceit, the whimsical but tempting notion that justice can be served and the world made better if only we believe strongly enough in the redemptive power of truth.
And once the book is finished and put back in the beach bag, or stored in the overhead locker, what remains with the reader is the novel’s quiet heart, the heartbreaking poignancy of the image on which it all turns, that of the body of a murdered 15-year-old girl uncovered in a shallow grave and, three decades after her death, still clutching a beloved handwritten manuscript.