The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair.

My latest Insider post breaks down the MLB Futures Game rosters. I also held a Klawchat today.

Joel Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair has been a global bestseller, garnering enormous critical praise even from sources typically more hostile to mass-market potboilers. Dicker’s novel is better than your average pageturner, a book with loftier, more literary aspirations that manages to get much of the way toward its goals without losing any of the narrative greed that made it very hard for me to put the book down. (I read its 640 pages in six days, and that’s without a flight where I could spend a few hours of uninterrupted reading time.)

QbertDicker has wrapped a standard detective novel in layers of other story templates, so that the resulting book is complex and textured even though no individual plot line is all that involved. Harry Quebert is a famous novelist whose magnum opus, the 1975 book The Origin of Evil, made his name in literary circles, landed him a teaching gig at Burrows College in Massachusetts, and, as we learn early in the book, was actually written about his love affair with a 15-year-old girl named Nola (while Quebert was 34), who disappeared without a trace just before the book was published. Quebert’s protég&ecaute; Marcus Goldman, himself mired in writer’s block following the runaway success of his first novel, has reached out to Harry for help in working on his second book when Nola’s body is discovered, buried in Harry’s garden, spurring Marcus to try to solve the mystery of her murder, clear Harry’s name (assuming he deserves to be cleared), and write that second book so his publisher doesn’t nail his head to a coffee table.

That gives us a detective novel wrapped in a mentor/pupil story wrapped in a book about writing, around which Dicker sprinkles the forbidden love story between Harry and Nola, with most of the book set in the seaside town of Somerset, New Hampshire. That town is populated with the various suspects in Nola’s disappearance and a contemporaneous murder, as well as various other crimes that come to light as Marcus’ investigation progresses. The side characters are well-formed with serious back stories, very reminiscent in form and location to the best of Richard Russo’s novels, most of which are set in New England towns albeit ones in economic decline. It’s remarkable since Dicker isn’t American by birth; he spent summers in a town similar to Somerset, but by and large he captures the American idiom well and has the rhythm of New England town life down better than many authors who were born here.

The copious praise was met with some inevitable backlash, and the latter does have some merit as The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is smart popular fiction but hardly up to the loftier standards of some of Dicker’s obvious inspirations. The natural comparison is to Philip Roth, as Goldman strongly resembles Zuckerman (including Goldman’s mother, a horrible caricature of a meddling, overreacting Jewish mother who makes Sophie Portnoy look like Mother Theresa) in character and involvement in the narrative he’s unfolding for us. In case the parallel was strong enough, Dicker names Quebert’s lawyer Roth. Nola is Lolita (a diminutive for Lola) in age and precocity, but whether she is temptress or innocent isn’t clear till the final two chapters of the book. (Of course, Lolita herself may not be the vixen Nabokov depicts her to be, as the story is told by the thoroughly unreliable Humbert Humbert, whose name isn’t that dissimilar from Harry’s – and Harry’s reliability isn’t rock-solid either.) The whole murder in a small town motif is very Agatha Christie, although the prose is more sparing, in line with Hammett or Chandler, just not quite in league with either.

At its heart, however, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is a detective novel, and a ripping one at that. Dicker has built an elaborate web of deceit through Somerset’s Twin Peaks/Broadchurch-esque populace, and starts peeling back layers slowly at first, picking up the pace dramatically at the end just as Quebert’s writing advice to Marcus advises him to do so. The resolution, while horrifying, is impressive in its tidiness and thoroughness. It fits the facts, yet I didn’t see it coming at all.

What this isn’t, however, is a great work of literature: It may be great fiction, but some of the praise for the book seems to place it in league with masters of the genre like Chandler or on par with the works of Roth and Saul Bellow. (The BBC had an interesting piece last summer, asking whether this could be the Great American Novel, which is how I first heard of the book.) The prose survives translation well and isn’t choppy or antiseptic like Stieg Larsson’s, but it’s pedestrian: Dicker tells the story, but there’s nothing special in his phrasing or rhythm. The advice from Harry to Marcus is often laughably hackneyed, and those brief interludes introducing each chapter are one of the book’s biggest weaknesses, along with Marcus’ mother and the cliched backstory on Luther Caleb. It’s the construction of the house of plots and the pacing of the main story that makes The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair more than your average bit of pulp fiction, a choice for leisure reading that will move at high speed without causing your brain to decay from disuse.

Next up: Edward St. Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk, a recommendation I got years ago from a fellow fan of British literature. It’s currently out of print, but you can get a new copy of the 2007 printing for over $2000 on amazon.

The Yard & Adam Bede.

The Yard, Alex Grecian’s first prose novel – he’s previously co-authored the graphic novel series Proof – is a hopelessly formulaic, lurid crime story that feels far more like an attempt to create a franchise than a desire to tell an actual story. Set in London just after Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror has ended, The Yard wants so badly to tell us how awful Victorian society was for those outside the privileged classes that it pelts the reader with a series of hoary details that beat that horse until it’s glue and steak frites.

The Yard opens with a cheap attention-grabber – a dead cop is found stuffed in a steamer trunk at a London railway station with his eyes and mouth sewn shut. This introduces us to Scotland Yard’s Murder Squad, a group of a dozen (now eleven) detectives assigned to look solely at homicides, of which there are far too many in London for this unit to handle. We also encounter Dr. Kingsley, the amateur forensic pathologist and assigned Voice of Reason whose mere presence makes this feel like the pilot for CSI: London. The detectives, led by the just-promoted Inspector Walter Day, work to solve the murder of their colleague, eventually splitting into factions to investigate potentially related crimes, including the murders of several bearded men, which eventually put several of the detectives in jeopardy (of course) and lead to two resolutions.

Grecian’s characters are his saving grace, and if I had any desire to continue with the sequel The Black Country, it would be to follow them. He’s crafted four strong police characters in Day, Inspector Blacker, their boss Sir Edward Bradford, and the constable Hammersmith, each of whom has a well-defined personality and admixture of positive and negative traits. (There are no worthwhile female characters, so the book flunks the Bechdel test entirely.) We get too much of Day’s home life without any real payoff, but Hammersmith’s back story turns out to be critical in defining the character and explaining some of his subversive actions.

Unfortunately, Grecian panders to the audience from the start by keeping his crimes graphic and offering repeated “shocks” to end maybe half of the book’s hundred-odd four-page chapters. We have the initial police murder, and then the murders of the bearded men who were shaved and then had their throats slit. We have a dead child, left to die in gruesome fashion, and the kidnapping of another by a man who may be a pedophile (Grecian implies this but, in a welcome bit of self-restraint, spares us any such details) but is certainly a psychopath. We have prostitutes, one a surviving victim of Saucy Jack himself. We get lots of time in Kingsley’s lab, with murder victims and others like the child laborer whose jaw was eaten away by phosphorus due to her work in a match factory. None of this was essential to the central plot, just extraneous details to titillate the reader and satisfy the same cravings that make lowbrow shows like Criminal Minds so successful.

The two central crimes also failed to grab my interest, and their resolutions revolved too much on coincidence and too little on actual policework for a novel ostensibly about police work. We learn the identity of the cop-killer before the quarter mark, and we get interludes from his perspective that add nothing beyond making it clear he’s a dangerous loony. He keeps showing his hand to the detectives, and he’s eventually found out through dumb luck. The so-called “Bearded Killer” is revealed a little later in the book, but it’s a crime without intrigue and only comes into play because Hammersmith ends up the target here before another idiot gets in the way and takes the razor intended for the constable. The Yard doesn’t need a Sherlock Holmes, solving cases in a few hours through the powers of deduction, but I can’t say London would be any safer through these bobbies blundering through their cases and waiting for the killer to all but turn himself in.

* I’m dispensing with a full writeup for George Eliot’s Adam Bede, which appears on the Bloomsbury 100, as it was dull and a tough slog, a real disappointment after I enjoyed Middlemarch. Adam Bede is preachy, with its too-perfect characters and over-the-top depiction of a girl in trouble treated unfairly due to Victorian attitudes. (I’m sure it’s all quite accurate, but I don’t imagine this story would have changed many Victorian minds through its telling.) Adam is a simple, kind laborer who wants to work for a better life, falls for the wrong girl, then eventually falls for the right one, the end. It reads like a first novel, which it was, and takes so long to even get into the main plot that I would have given up after 100 pages had I not been so hellbent on finishing the entire Bloomsbury list.

* Next up: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, which was a finalist for both the the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (the year when the board declined to give the award to any title) and the inaugural Andrew Carnegie Medal (losing to Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz).

Dracula.

Dracula, #98 on Daniel Burt’s original version of The Novel 100, gave us one of the best-known characters in all of literature, generated an enduring myth of the undead vampire (and yet another reason to love garlic), and provided enough fodder for sex-obsessed English professors to analyze for centuries. It’s also surprisingly uneven and even a little slow in parts, despite a strong opening chapter that is among the best pieces of horror writing I have ever encountered.

Stoker was apparently a hack writer before the publication of Dracula and didn’t produce much of enduring literary value afterwards, but that one book – in the public domain in the U.S. since its publication due to an error in its copyright notice – is one of the most influential works of fiction written in any language, spawning what Jasper Fforde has dubbed the “Sexy Vampires” subgenre and inflicting Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson on us all. There is some obvious sexual metaphor in Stoker’s work, with blood-sucking standing in as a symbol for sex, but it’s far less overt the modern glut of vampire-romance stories (I’m including non-literary adaptations, like the TV version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – remember “When did the building fall down?”); I wonder if he had a more direct influence on D.H. Lawrence, who also explored religious and pagan themes with more frank depictions of human sexuality (especially that of women) that led to the banning of some of his works.

Stoker borrowed a narrative technique from one of my favorite novels, Wilkie Collins’ 1860 thriller The Woman in White, which told the story in a series of first-person narratives from various participants in and observers of the main story, resulting in a panoramic view by the end of the novel as pieces fall into place while allowing the author to add or remove clarity as he ses fit. Stoker’s version is more disjointed because so much of the novel is in diary form, with shorter sections that result in too-frequent changes of perspective and, for me at least, occasional confusion over who was speaking.

The more successful trick of Dracula is how Stoker builds up his antagonist early in the book, so that the villain becomes an ever-present force to the characters involved even though he barely appears in the novel’s final half. The opening segment, the longest from any single character, follows the young solicitor Jonathan Harker to Transylvania, where he is to meet a new client and help him with the purchase of an estate in London. Harker is unnerved by the locals’ apparent fear of the castle he’s visiting but is taken in by his host’s charm until he discovers that his host is keeping him prisoner, and that the castle is also home to three evil enchantresses (“the weird sisters,” which is itself a possible reference to the prophesying sisters of Macbeth, and a familiar term to the Harry Potter fans among you) who nearly kill him with their kiss. Count Dracula’s character is fully defined in this section, with some scattered details provided later with the appearance of Professor Van Helsing, but Dracula only physically appears in the text a handful of times after Harker’s escape from the castle. The fear of Dracula takes over the antagonist role from his incarnation, and if Stoker hadn’t used so many narrators to make the story internally reliable, he could easily have written a similar story where Harker hallucinated the initial episode and the characters are chasing a villain who doesn’t exist.

There’s a downside to that trick of Stoker’s, however. The final quarter or so of the novel involves a race against the clock as the protagonists chase Dracula around London and back to Transylvania to try to kill him (permanently), even though he only appears in the text via one character’s psychic connection to him. The novel suffers from his absence, as the characters seem to emphasize repeatedly the risks of failing to reach him in time rather than allowing him to demonstrate it – the narrative greed was lost for me. Where Collins managed to maintain suspense in his novel through mystery, Stoker built up suspense through fear and couldn’t hold that tension once the antagonist was on the run – or, more accurately, in a box.

One plot point I didn’t quite grasp, for those of you who read it, is how Dracula settled on his initial female victim, who is connected with Harker. I might have missed something at the start, but this seemed like an odd choice that never received any explanation; he just happened to target this woman, who just happened to be connected through a friend to a great expert on the undead. That worked out well for Stoker, but even in a book that requires substantial suspension of disbelief, those two coincidences jarred. I’m glad I read it for completeness purposes, but I think its presence on Burt’s ranking is more reflective of its popularity and historical importance than overall literary merit.

Next up: I’m almost through Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, #48 on The Novel 100 and part of the TIME 100 as well.

Shadow of the Wind.

I read Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s best-selling novel The Shadow of the Wind last week between vacation and the long trip to Bristol (during which I also watched the first half of season 4 of The Wire) after a reader recommended it and I discovered my wife wanted to read it as well. It’s quick-moving with some interesting subtexts, but with a lot of silly, predictable plot elements and some least-common-denominator writing that drags the book down to a pulpier level.

The novel starts promisingly enough as the narrator/protagonist, Daniel, is introduced by his bookseller father to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a slightly mystical edifice in Barcelona where the keepers attempt to obtain a copy of every book ever written so that they may never be permanently forgotten. Daniel’s father tells him to find one book and become its champion, of sorts, and Daniel is drawn to a book called Shadow of the Wind, by an unknown author named Julián Carax. Daniel’s attempts to learn more about the book and Carax then drive the remainder of the novel’s plot, which has almost nothing to do with books or literature but instead revolves more around the history of Spain from its civil war forward, and around the city of Barcelona itself, which is the book’s real center and its main character.

It turns out that some madman is running around burning every copy of Carax’s books that he can find, and when that madman finds Daniel as a result of the boy’s inquiries about the book and its author, it plunges Daniel into the story he’s chasing, one that dates back to Carax’s boyhood and features a doomed romance and childhood grudges that have become deadly in time, while paralleling developments in Daniel’s own life, including a forbidden romance of his own that almost (but, fortunately, not completely) mirrors Julián’s.

Ruiz Zafón’s best passages have little to do with the plot, or with dialogue (it may be the translation, which was done by Lucia Graves, the daughter of I, Claudius author Robert Graves, but Zafón’s language comes off as stilted), but with Barcelona itself. His prose is most evocative when he’s describing street scenes from what is a very scenic, memorable city, a city that mixes architectural styles and landscapes and features the kind of old buildings required for the novel’s gothic-horror-lite elements.

Unfortunately, I could never fully buy into the story’s plot, not the madman’s actions, not the acts of the violent policeman who also stalks Daniel, not the romance between Julián and his intended, nor her father’s actions when their affair is discovered. The madman’s identity was easy to figure out, and while I didn’t see the twist with Julián and Penelope coming, it’s not remotely original and I thought it was played more for shock value than anything else, a trick Ruiz Zafón also uses when Daniel pronounces, American Beauty-style, that in seven days, he will be dead. (Spoiler, which I think anyone could guess, but you should avert your eyes if you really don’t want to know: He ends up dead for a few seconds before he’s revived. Cheap.) I kept looking for a deeper meaning in the book relating to the dark period of fascism in Spain that lasted four decades, but either I’m not familiar enough with Spanish history to find it, or it just wasn’t there.

If you want a real page-turner with gothic horror elements, go for the longer but far more enjoyable Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. If you like the idea of a novel revolving around books, I’d recommend the tremendously fun The Eyre Affair (which I recommend all the time) or the clever if not entirely plot-driven City of Dreaming Books.

I should also mention Dorothy Sayers’ mystery Whose Body?, which introduced the amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey with a clever device involving the discovery of an unknown victim’s naked body in the tub of a working-class house in London. I like a good mystery, having read twenty-odd Agatha Christie novels, but Sayers’ writing and the resolution of the story both left me cold, particularly since the killer’s identity is revealed with about ten percent of the novel remaining, after which we get a long, drawn-out monologue (in epistolary form) from him explaining why he did what he did. Sayers also has Lord Wimsey speaking a very common vernacular that doesn’t gel with what we learn of his upbringing and seems like affect, and not the charming affect of, say, M. Poirot. The series has a devoted following but I don’t feel any need to go on to the next title.

Next up: Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt.

Codex.

I’ve got a few new pieces up on the Four-Letter, including reactions to the Noel Argüelles signing, the Chone Figgins signing, and James Paxton’s lawsuit against the University of Kentucky.

Pseudo-intellectual thrillers have thrived in recent years as a literary genre, particularly in mass-market paperbacks, with Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code leading the charge, although I think the style dates back to Michael Crichton’s preachy, predictable, very fast-paced novels from the early-to-mid-1990s. They’re potboilers in fancy dress, usually with lots of explanatory text so that you’ll understand the motive of the core crime or why everyone is running very fast. The technique of putting the protagonist in jeopardy and having various suspects and witnesses killed off over the course of a book works well in the spare writing of hard-boiled detective novels, but married with …

Lev Grossman, whose The Magicians was one of the best books I read in 2009, wrote a book in that genre that dispenses with the conventions of body counts, crazy chase scenes, and character cliches (like the beautiful yet brilliant female researcher). Codex, which came out in 2004, creates tension from the core mystery around the titular Codex (a medieval book that may hide a coded message, if it can be found, assuming it even exists) rather than the artificial tension that characterizes the more ponderous entries in the genre.

In Codex, investment banker Edward Wozny finds himself employed to catalog the rare book collection of one of his best clients, an English duke and his wife, and despite his instinctive indignation at the menial task, he takes it on and finds himself gradually sucked into the search for the missing codex, even when he realizes that not everyone involved wants the book to be found. At the same time, Wozny’s friends introduce him to a time-sucking computer game called MOMUS that seems to Edward to offer unexplained parallels and connections to the search for the codex. In both quests, he ends up hopelessly lost and has to enlist the help of others, including a not-beautiful yet brilliant female researcher who specializes in the alleged author of the missing tome.

The stakes are high for the characters in the book, but Grossman ignores the trend of raising the stakes to fate-of-the-world status, recognizing that something as small as a battle between two members of the same family can be serious enough to cause people to throw around large sums of money and throw wrenches in the works of another person’s plans. I found that the pace of Codex accelerated as it went simply because I wanted to know where the codex was, what it meant, and why the person who employs Edward wanted to find it. Grossman also avoids the pat ending, concluding the book on an appropriately ambiguous note, although he does rely on one error of judgment by a main character to get us to the finish line.

Next up: Dawn Powell’s satire of the publishing circles of late 1930s New York (particularly Claire Boothe Luce), a somewhat forgotten novel called A Time to Be Born.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Some of my TV hit from yesterday is available online. I’ve got a quick take on the Adrian Gonzalez/White Sox rumor on Rumor Central. My morning wrapup piece is now up as well.

Question: If Stieg Larsson had lived to see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo get published, would it have received the same fawning critical reaction? After reading the book, I have to doubt it. It’s a brisk read, sometimes gripping, but it’s a lot closer to your average mass-market pot-boiler than the serious novel of ideas that the pull quotes I’ve seen would indicate.

Mikael Blomkvist is a crusading journalist in Stockholm who, at the book’s opening, has been found guilty of libel and sentenced to three months in jail after a big expose he ran on a leading Swedish businessman turned out to be based on fabricated information. Blomkvist is then summoned to meet the patriarch of the Vanger family, Henrick, who wants to employ him to write the family history and use that as a ruse to dig around the forty-year-old disappearance of his niece, Harriet Vanger, who is presumed dead but whose body was never found. Henrik used a private security company to run a background check on Blomkvist, and the report was written by Lisbeth Salander, the inked girl of the book’s title, a brilliant loner with issues and a serious (but seemingly justified) hatred of men. Salander and Blomkvist end up working together on the Harriet case for Henrik, for their own curiosity, and for the potential to save Blomkvist’s publication, Millennium, which ran the discredited article.

The story flies by, even though Larsson hasn’t overpacked the book with action sequences. There’s just one major protagonist-in-jeopardy episode, and much of the remainder of the investigation part of the book covers Blomkvist and Salander’s efforts to unearth information on the Vanger clan, since they’re working a very cold case in which modern investigative techniques aren’t that useful. Following Blomkvist as he navigates some of the odd personalities associated with the case is interested for fifty pages or so, but it’s not enough to sustain the narrative, and Larsson eventually has to push the plot forward with some “aha” moments and discoveries. I finished the book inside of 96 hours, and that one bit where Blomkvist is nearly killed is a heart-pounder.

The main problem with Girl is that it’s not so much a detective story or thriller as it is a revenge fantasy. Larsson piles injustices on both his two main protagonists and on unseen victims, then takes out the crooks and the creeps one by one in clinical fashion. I admit to seeing a certain satisfaction in watching Blomkvist and Salander – particularly Salander, who is almost sociopathic in her vengeance, although I imagine Larsson intended to make it seem more obsessive/therapeutic – bring justice to bear on the baddies, but it also made for a cliche-ridden plot with only one really surprising twist (one that was actually foreshadowed at the book’s opening, although Larsson did a nice job casting doubt on that initial suspicion).

Those two protagonists are also somewhat thinly drawn. Blomkvist is atonal – he’s not perfect, as he’s consistently reckless in his personal liaisons and many of his professional choices, including the one that nearly gets him killed – but he’s roughly as interesting as a glass of water. Salander is far more interesting as the brilliant freak with the mysterious past, driven by some unknown but unpleasant episode from her childhood, but her absurd memory and skill with computers remove doubt from the reader’s mind – she breaks every code, obtains every file or photo, remembers every detail. Flawed detectives have to work to solve a case. Salander just has to breathe.

The prose is just atrocious, although I’m not sure how much is Larsson’s (he was a journalist by trade, not a fiction writer, and I think it showed in his wording) and how much is just a bad translation from the original Swedish:

Finally he opened his shoulder bag and put his iBook on the desk in the office. Then he stopped and looked about him with a sheepish expression. The benefits of living in the countryside, forsooth. There was nowhere to plug in the broadband cable. He did not even have a telephone jack to connect an old dial-up modem.

Larsson loaded the text with irrelevant details that don’t set the scene or elucidate anything about the plot or characters; that sort of self-editing is critical to any novel but particularly one in the detective genre. He also degenerates into dimwitted populism that reminded me of why I stopped reading Michael Crichton after two books:

“The Stock Exchange is something very different. There is no economy and no production of goods and services. There are only fantasies in which people from one hour to the next decide that this or that company is worth so many billions, more or less. It doesn’t have a thing to do with reality or with the Swedish economy.”

I mean, aside from the inherent ignorance of what the purpose of a stock exchange is, and the omission of the fact that personal wealth in any capitalist economy is going to be at least partly driven by the movement in the equity markets, Larsson (speaking through Blomkvist) really nails it.

Would I recommend the book? It’s a fast and entertaining read, and if that’s what you want from your novels, then you’ll enjoy it. I’ll probably check out the sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, when it comes out in paperback, although I can’t say I’m dying to do so. (Larsson does end with a small personal cliffhanger for Salander, which struck me as a little unrealistic and not a driver towards the next book.) Having read so many better novels even within the space of detective stories, though, I found The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to be like empty calories.

Incidentally, friend of the dish Levi Stahl disliked the book far more than I did. I at least enjoyed the reading, but the prose seems to have made Levi quite angry.

Next up: Wayne Curtis’ And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails, a non-fiction book about my favorite distilled spirit. A bit of trivia from the book: If rum is the distilled essence of molasses, and brandy is the distilled essence of wine, what spirit is the distilled essence of beer?