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Thursday, November 20, 2014

What I’m Reading: The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair

Earlier this summer I listened to the audio of one of Europe’s recent bestsellers, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair [herein HQA] by Joel Dicker. I have waited to write this review because I was very torn on who to suggest this book to.  Recently someone came in asking about it after a friend recommended it, so I had to wrap myself around who this book is best suited for whether I was ready to or not.

Part of my hesitation comes form the marketing campaign for this book.  It was pegged as a "literary thriller."  While this is technically true, it is also extremely misleading.  Unlike The Goldfinch or Night Film, which are literary fiction titles that have a large thriller storyline, HQA is a thriller with a publishing world frame, as the story is about authors, mysterious masterpiece novels, and the unsolved murder of a young girl.

Which brings me to the complicated plot first.  This is a book within a book, within a book, within another book, and, quite possibly, within a book 2 more times [if you really want to be specific and annoying]. I could go into a long explanation of the plot here, but if you want that click here. Rather I am going to give you a bare bones sketch.

In 1975 a young girl named Nola Kellergan disappears.  But our story open 33 years later as a writer, Marcus Kellergan, who is struggling to come up with what to write as the follow up to his smash debut novel, is called by his old mentor and writing teacher, Harry Quebert.  Nola's body has been found on Harry's property and he has been arrested for her murder.

What follows is a story told in parallel narratives, one taking place in 1975 and one in the present, as Marcus unravels the truth behind Nola's death.  In the process of the cold case being investigated, Marcus also writes 2 bestselling books about his investigation, the second of which is the book we the readers are reading right now.  He also uncovers way more than just who killed Nola. [Cue sound effects.... da, da, DAAAAA!]

After reading the novel I will say that while it has a HUGE literary frame it is NOT literary.  It is a fun, compelling, intricately plotted, very dramatic thriller.  That thriller part is the key.  HQA has all of the hallmarks of a solid thriller, but that also means it has some of the draw backs.  Depending on whether or not thrillers are your thing this will be awesome or a problem. You can decide for yourself into which camp you fall with the quick list I made below.

Thriller aspects HQA nails:

  • intricate plot twists which keep coming and coming and coming.
  • plot over character development-- characters aren't bad, but many are drawn with broad strokes and rely on familiar stereotypes and tropes, as is common in many thrillers.
  • a compelling, page turning pace despite a long page count.
  • shocking conclusions that go beyond the simple "who dunnit."
  • a great frame-- thrillers stand out from suspense from their reliance on frame, often from a particular profession.  Here the publishing industry is splayed wide open. [For more from me on what makes something a thriller, you can see this older post, but if you are part of the ARRT genre study, we have detailed notes from our long conversation on the issue just last month.]

One word of caution: This is also a novel about the American literary landscape, set in New England, written by someone who lives in Europe.  There were definitely moments when I felt like Dicker relied on stereotypes and used very broad strokes to create his frame.  Now, as someone who lived in New England while getting a BA in American Studies with a focus on literature, I realized before starting this novel that I could be so familiar with the landscape and frame that I would not be satisfied by anyone's portrayal of it, but I have asked a few people who are not as well versed as myself and they too agreed that it was a bit obvious that Dicker is not American.

But judged on its own merits, and not on the mis-marketing by the publisher, HQA is a solid entry into the thriller category.  It makes for a great vacation read.  Despite the plot twists and intricate overlapping of elements and timelines, it is not hard to follow, it moves steadily despite its 650+ page count, and once I let myself go and settled in to listen to the story unveil itself, I had fun. There is a lot of positive to be said for that.

A note on the audio: I could take it or leave it on Pierce Cravens' narration.  His voice was mildly annoying, but then, so too was Marcus, our narrator.  Since I think Dicker wrote Marcus to be slightly annoying, maybe this was on purpose.  For me, this was the type of book I love listening to. I often get upset at the lack of character development and the use of stereotypes as a crutch in many thrillers [but those are some of the reasons their fans love these books, I know], so listening to thrillers allows me to let go a bit more and just let the story wash over me.  I never would have stuck with HQA in print because of my personal genre preferences, but overall, I am glad I listened to it as I now know exactly who to suggest it to. Plus, as I said above, it was a fun read.

Three Words That Describe This Book: parallel storylines, dramatic, intricately plotted

Readalikes: Based on everything I said above, I realized immediately that HQA reminds me a lot of The Book of Fate by Brad Meltzer.  Both are thrillers with a new adult coming into his adult career, handling a cold case, with an intricate plot.

In my opinion, today's best writer of dramatic and compelling suspense and/or thrillers that feature ordinary people put into extraordinary circumstances who are forced to use the skills they have in their chosen profession to work their way out of the problem is Harlan Coben. So if you have fans of Coben's who are looking for more, try suggesting HQA.

If you really still want a dramatic story with a focus on a mystery surrounding the life of an author, your two best options are Atonement by Ian McEwan (very literary) or The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. [FYI, these are 2 of my all time favs.]

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