It’s a Mystery: “Destiny is invincible; it always triumphs in the end”
By Jonathan Holt
The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair, Joel Dicker’s multilayered novel of suspense, has arrived here accompanied by the kind of fanfare reserved for superstars. Not since The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2008) has there been such an extraordinary buildup and buzz about a foreign language thriller. Originally published in France, where it sold more than one million copies and swept all the prestigious literary awards, it went on to become an international bestseller.
So, is Harry worth the hype? I have to say “yes” with a few reservations but, hey, it’s 600-plus pages that I kept reading. Jumping back and forth from 1975 to 2008, it’s narrated by Marcus Goldman, a twenty-something wunderkind whose first novel was an overnight sensation. Now, a year and a half after its publication, Marcus has a severe case of writer’s block that prevents him from penning a follow-up. His publisher and his agent are driving him crazy, so he retreats to rural New Hampshire to visit his former professor Harry Quebert. Said professor is a much admired novelist in his sixties who is still famous for a single book, The Origin of Evil. Immediately hailed as a masterpiece, it made Quebert a household name.
The flashback scene where Marcus captures Quebert’s attention is a gem. It is 1998, Marcus is a freshman at Burrows College in Massachusetts. He never misses Professor Quebert’s Thursday class.
He called the shots at Burrows, and everyone listened to and respected his opinion, not only because he was Harry Quebert—the Harry Quebert, an American institution—but also because he was naturally impressive: tall, elegant, and with a speaking voice that could be warm and thunderous. …He was also the only professor who taught all his courses in the main amphitheater, which was usually reserved for graduation ceremonies and theatrical performances.
On this particular Thursday in late October, Quebert begins his class as follows:
“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re all very excited by what’s happening in Washington at the moment, aren’t we? The Lewinsky affair…Consider this: In the entire history of the United States of America, two reasons have been identified for terminating a presidential term of office—being a notorious crook, like Richard Nixon, or dying…. But now a third reason may be added to that list: fellatio…a few years from now, no one will remember that Mr. Clinton saved our failing economy, governed expertly with a Republican majority in the Senate, or made Rabin and Arafat shake hands. But everyone will remember the Lewinsky affair, because blow jobs, ladies and gentlemen, remain engraved in people’s memories. But so what if our president likes to get sucked off occasionally? He’s not exactly the only one. Who else in this room enjoys that?”
This question marks a seminal moment in Marcus’s life. He is the only one to raise his hand while everyone else is looking at their shoes.
Proudly I stood on my chair.
“I like blow jobs a lot, Professor. My name is Marcus Goldman and I love getting my dick sucked. Just like the president.”
The professor dubs him “Mr. Blow job” and takes him under his wing. Quebert becomes Marcus’s mentor, muse (in a highly unorthodox way) and sparring partner. Each chapter begins with Quebert spouting one of his “priceless” aphorisms on his craft to his protégé:
“I would like to teach you writing Marcus—not so that you know how to write, but so that you become a writer. Because writing books is no small feat. Everyone knows how to write, but not everyone is a writer.”
‘And how do you know when you’re a writer, Harry?”
“Nobody knows he’s a writer. It’s other people who tell you.”
“You see, boxing and writing are very similar…. A book is a battle…. You should prepare for your writing as you prepare for a boxing match, Marcus.”…
“What does that mean?” Marcus answers.
…”Turn your ideas into illuminations.”
“What does that mean?” It is maddening how often Dicker gives us a stereotypical Quebert, a one-shot wonder author writ large, chewing on his pipe and meaninglessly pontificating. Still, as I said, we keep reading because the story as it unfolds has us in its grip.
We move to the spring of 2008. Marcus Goldman is staying in Harry Quebert’s Somerset, New Hampshire home and trying to get on with his writing. In the midst of this reunion of sorts, the body of Nola Kellergan, a 15-year-old girl who disappeared 33 years earlier, is discovered on Quebert’s property. In the course of the investigation, it comes out that in 1975 Quebert was having an affair with Nola. It gets him branded as a pedophile and thrown in jail as her murderer. But Marcus believes in Quebert’s innocence and sets out to prove it. In the process, he writes that second book, The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair.
And once we realize that the book we are reading is the book the narrator wrote, we are completely hooked. Nola may be dead, but she is the driving force behind all the action. We are mesmerized by Harry Quebert’s obsessive, devouring passion for this nymphet. (Lolita anyone?) And if he didn’t kill Nola, who did and why? In a small town seething with secrets we are soon drowning in suspects and red herrings. Nothing—repeat—nothing is as it seems. Nola will forever be an alluring, angelic girl-child to Quebert. But early on we know better. The real Nola is but one deception in a novel layered with them. Almost everyone in Somerset is hiding something. The plot has more dark twists and turns than a drug lord’s tunnel. When the truth is finally unearthed, it reveals as much about the ambiguity of love as it does about the many kinds of madness that fuel hate and violence.
But if The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is about love’s many guises, it is also about fame and infamy. To quote Tom Robbins from his just published memoir Tibetan Peach Pie, “Whom the gods would destroy they first make popular.”
The secrets in Jonathan Holt’s The Abduction, the second installment in his dazzling Carnivia trilogy, are a world away (literally) from Harry Quebert’s. To state the obvious, Venice, where Holt’s thrillers take place, is as far removed from New Hampshire as you can get. It is a city as fascinating as it is enigmatic. The first volume, The Abomination (2013), opened during La Befana—January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany—with the whole city raucously celebrating. This second begins as Venice’s annual Carnevale, the celebration that starts 40 days before Easter, is getting under way. The setting is the Club Libero, which holds a special party night for Carnevale and isn’t listed in the official programme:
…you would have been hard pushed to find it advertised anywhere, that is, apart from certain obscure internet bulletin boards and special-interest websites…. By 1 a.m., the main dance floor was full…Every participant wore a carnival mask…. But in almost every case, these costumes ended at the shoulders. From the chest down the partygoers were dressed more conventionally…. By two, the reason for this had become clear. The clothes were starting to be discarded…most headed directly to the playrooms, where the dim lighting was colour-coded to signify when a particular room was dedicated to a particular pleasure.
It is from one of these rooms that 16-year-old Mia Elston is kidnapped. She is the daughter of an
American officer based in Vicenza just outside Venice. Major Elston, in the tradition of The Great Santini, is a martinet whose pure little girl would never frequent a club like Libero.
Once again, we are in two Venices, the modern physical world and its virtual counterpart, the encrypted website, Carnivia.com. This is an online city with millions of visitors, both a social network and a simulated world. Users hide their identities behind carnival masks. Daniele Barbo, the compulsively fascinating founder of the site, encores in a pivotal role:
The one thing everybody knew about Carnivia was that it wasn’t possible to hack it….
On Carnivia, wrapped in the anonymity of its military-grade encryption, you could buy anything, from the secrets of your colleagues’ sex lives to a new identity; sell anything, from a stranger’s credit card details to your own body; gamble anything, from your wage packet to your life; and say anything, from a declaration of passion sent via an anonymous email that self-destructed after a few minutes, to a whistleblowing denunciation of a corrupt politician or government. Some people called it evil, others a force for good. Most, however, were coming to realize that it was neither…simply a new reality of the information age, one whose true impact would be gauged only in hindsight…. Carnivia’s success was inextricably linked to its ability to remain secure.
Carabinieri Captain Kat Tapo, her boss Colonel Aldo Piola and US intelligence analyst Holly Boland, the trio we first met in The Abomination, are all working together to find the missing girl. Meanwhile, clues about Mia start appearing on Carnivia. What Daniele sees, forces him to confront his own demons about privacy and transparency. In the final analysis, he must share the so called “underweb” he knows so intimately to save Mia.
Soon, the four of them , along with a rapidly assembled team of specialists, are watching with mounting trepidation videos of Mia undergoing CIA-sanctioned “interrogation” techniques. Holt deftly conveys the horror of sensory deprivation, walling, waterboarding and other thoroughly repellent practices. The kidnappers claim the “non-torture” will cease when Americans halt construction on a base being built at the disused Dal Molin airfield. Piola had a recent encounter with a protest group called Azione Dal Molin. Could they be the ones holding Mia?
The investigation proceeds into uncharted territory. The deeper they dig, the murkier the case becomes. Kat and Holly are convinced that there is a powerful, hidden agenda in play and Mia’s abduction is a carefully orchestrated distraction, not the main event.
Holt, like most good authors of the genre, is an expert tease. Near the book’s beginning, there is a seductive scene in the Vatican in a climate controlled room four levels below St. Peter’s Square. It contains highly confidential archives. The Papal Secretariat, Martino Santini, who has been pushing for the Church to become more open and transparent is summoned by the ancient priest in charge of the archives to view a piece of paper that has just come to light:
Santini picked up the piece of paper again, staring at each brief paragraph as if somewhere in the wording he might find room for ambiguity or reinterpretation. Transparency was surely unthinkable now. “People will say that if it happened then, it could have gone on happening.” He glanced up, horrified. “It didn’t, did it?”
No one replied.
We learn no more about this until the end when much is revealed (and much is merely hinted at) through one of my favorite characters in both books, Ian Gilroy. The ex-CIA section head, now supposedly retired, illuminates some dark secrets from Italy’s wartime past. No surprise. He more than hints at some ongoing conspiracies with heavy U.S. involvement, thus confirming the theory that there’s no such thing as a retired spy. As Gilroy puts it, “When the CIA goes to church, it doesn’t go to pray.”
In The Abduction, the kidnapping is one small part of a larger narrative that raises some disturbing questions about our past and the post-9/11 world. As Holt says in an afterword, “Despite suggestions in 2009 that it would be ended, ‘rendition’—otherwise known as ‘abduction’—remains a legal tool of the US government.”
In an interview, Holt promised that by the end of the trilogy, The Atrocity, we’d get “new glimpses into an over-arching conspiracy—I can’t say much more without giving it away.”
I can’t wait.
Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.