Marcus Goldman and Harry Quebert are New York-based writers in this mystery from Swiss-born Joël Dicker. But none of the action takes place in Manhattan. Instead it is set at Harry’s New Hampshire home, in the small town of Somerset.
Goldman is a former student of Quebert’s, who is also a college professor. And he’s got the “writer’s disease,” a.k.a. writer’s block. So he heads up to New Hampshire to visit his mentor. But the whole project gets upended when Harry is accused of murder.
Mind you, this isn’t current day murder. Rather it’s the discovery of the remains of a long-disappeared teenage girl. Gardeners find the body while planting a hydrangea bush on Harry’s property. Straightaway the police allege that Harry is the culprit. And Marcus sets out to exonerate him, which also gives the younger writer a project that unblocks his creative juices. Problem is, since the events happened 30 years ago, everyone has a different version of the truth.
My head hurt at the end of this book. Due to the fluid nature of recollections, the plot whipped this way and that. And at the end of the book, I was well nigh overwhelmed with the options. But Dicker ties it all in a nice knot at the end. So it was worth the literary whiplash and even enjoyable, if a little frenetic.
Marcus and Harry are flawed, to be sure. In each chapter, Dicker adjusts the story a little, driven by his characters. Marcus digs deeper into his interviews with townspeople and work with the absurdly named Detective Gahalowood. Harry just plain digs his heels in.
Dicker makes small-town 1970s America seem just as dysfunctional as Elizabeth Wetmore did in Valentine. And yet, somehow the true killer keeps a secret for three long decades. Reading both of these in sequence makes me glad to have limited relationships with my neighbors.
In addition to the mystery, Dicker excavates the writing process by putting us in Marcus’ shoes. The depth of difficulty involved in developing a great story reminded me of John Boyne’s masterful 2018 book, A Ladder to the Sky. Dicker’s characters are more likable and almost buffoons, where Boyne’s main character is a straight-up sociopath.
One of my pandemic projects is working my way through backlist, already owned books on my shelves. This one was $1.00 at a Dollar General. It was worth considerably more, because Dicker transported me to another time and place. That’s quite valuable today!
Pair with the books mentioned above, for alternate versions of author’s lives and 1970s America.