Some novels slip into the world without much fuss and others are accompanied by a loud fanfare. The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair by Swiss writer Joel Dicker (Macmillan) belongs very much in the latter camp. It sparked a frantic bidding war, has sold more than two million copies, won a couple of French awards and is being published in 40 or so countries.
That kind of hype brings high expectations. Thankfully, this 600-plus page book is a fabulous potboiler, dizzyingly twisty, amusingly satirical, and gripping from start to finish.
Our narrator, Marcus Goldman, is a young, one-hit wonder of a novelist who is suffering from a serious case of writer's block. In desperation, he leaves New York and goes to stay with his old mentor, Harry Quebert, who lives near the small New Hampshire town of Somerset. Harry is most famous for a bestseller called The Origin Of Evil that he wrote in 1975 and, with his publisher piling on the pressure, Marcus is hoping his influence will work some magic so he can produce a similar masterpiece. Things don't quite pan out that way.
A body is found in Harry's garden, buried with a manuscript of his iconic novel. It is identified as local girl Nola Kerrigan, who was 15 when she disappeared 1975, and Harry is arrested for her murder. Marcus is aware the pair had a love affair -- and a forbidden one at that, given Harry was in his 30s at the time. Things look pretty bad for him.
Convinced his mentor couldn't have killed "The Girl Who Touched The Heart of America", Marcus decides to stay in New Hampshire and try to clear his name. Who really was Nola? A sweet, popular girl who worked in a burger joint? A child mature beyond her years? No more than a cheap tart? As Marcus investigates, he begins to shape what he learns into a book -- and the facts are more astonishing than any fiction he might have imagined.
So has Dicker managed the feat so eluding his protagonist? Has he written a masterpiece, a great novel with great ideas, something unforgettable? Well yes ... and no.
As much as it is a racy read, mildly creepy and hugely diverting, The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair is like the young Marcus -- it's pretending to be more magnificent than it is. Prefacing chapters with Harry's sagacity on the writing process and the book-within-a-book effect is faking up a bit of clever. It doesn't disguise the fact that things get pretty corny in places, like Marcus' exchanges with his Jewish mom who comes straight out of central casting (they appear to have supplied several other characters). And don't get me started on the syrupy dialogue between Harry and Nola in the flashbacks.
As an unpredictable thriller about a small town where no one and nothing is quite what they seem this is a winner. It's this year's Gone Girl. But I can't be persuaded it's significantly deeper than that.