The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair starts one summer's evening in 1975 with a phone call from a witness to the police- a young girl has just been sighted, running into the woods pursued by a man. She is never seen alive again.
Marcus Goldman is a successful writer, the new kid on the literary block basking in the success of his first novel. He is America's hottest young thing. But now he's suffering from crippling writer's block. Unsure whether or not he can continue to be a writer and desperate for a solution, he gets in touch with his mentor, ex professor and friend Harry Quebert for the first time since his success. Harry invites him to his beach side house in Somerset, New Hampshire. It is here, on his self-induced writers' retreat that Marcus learns that HQ, retired academic and successful novelist, at the age of 36 had a relationship with a 15 year old girl.
Putting this out of his mind, Marcus tries to write. He returns to New York. He's at his wit's end when Harry calls, distraught; Nola Kellergan is dead. Her skeletal remains are excavated from Harry Quebert's garden, along with a leather bag containing the handwritten manuscript of Harry's most successful novel, The Origin of Evil. It's swiftly pulled from stores and libraries as America reels from the revelation that this giant of American literature, this lauded book is inspired by a love affair between a 36 year old man and a 15 year old girl. Things are not looking good for Harry.
Marcus is not convinced. Determined to clear the name of his only friend, he sets out to investigate the murder. It's gripping, page turning stuff; we watch as Marcus feverishly goes over the evidence, talks to witnesses and townspeople, goes off-piste in the houses of suspicious millionaires, trying to understand what happened that night in 1975. Alienating a whole town in the process, Marcus uncovers some shoddy police work, statements that don't add up, people that did inexplicable or odd things that night 36 years ago- every answer leads to 3 more questions and the more he pulls at the thread, the more secrets come tumbling out into the open.
There's no denying that this is a compelling detective investigation. There are red herrings around every corner, and more twists and cliffhangers than is probably healthy for a reader. The small-town tight-knit community comes alive effortlessly; the supporting cast of this novel contributes so much to the novel. There are comedically toxic mothers, useless husbands, pushy parents and deformed chauffeurs, reclusive millionaires, beauty queens and corrupt cops. Somerset is a town that nobody ever seems to leave and so everyone knows everyone else's business. Or so they think. The Edward Hopper painting on the cover sums it up beautifully. On the outside it's all apple pie, community barbecues and picket fences, but every resident hides a secret, a part of the puzzle that on its own means nothing. I was really impressed with Decker's ability to conjure up this inward-looking small town- it all felt so real; its normalcy was so convincing that its seedy secrets became all the more shocking.
It's also a book about writing. Each chapter starts with a piece of writing wisdom from Harry; the master imparting the rules of the craft. Only there aren't any rules, not really. Marcus' investigation fuels his next novel The Harry Quebert Affair and then The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. The book in the reader's hands contains excerpts from its main character's book of the same name, and excerpts from the fictional The Origin of Evil. Marcus wrestles with his creative demons throughout, dedicated to truth but not sure of his ending. It also lambastes the vultures and schemers of the publishing and legal worlds, those that want scandals and monstrous exposes whatever the cost. Truth or fiction doesn't matter- as long as it makes money.
There's an abundance of themes explored in the novel; love, lust and obsession, fame and infamy, murder, madness, religious mania, theft and duplicity. Marcus delves into the past and learns more about the people around him. As the characters' lives are filled in, they become easier to understand, but harder to trust. Every character is a mystery- what seems concrete and believable can crumble in a moment. Essentially the book is about the extent to which appearances can be deceiving. A perfect beach-side town can prove to be a sordid hotbed of lust, lies and bitterness; Nola Kellergan is not what she appears. Neither, apparently is Harry.
Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed this book and found it to be an engrossing, intelligent thriller, I did find the final 100 pages a bit of a test. The tension has been piled on for 500 odd pages, it feels like it's coming to a natural and satisfying end much earlier than makes sense...but then Decker undertakes a narrative key-change and the plot twists itself into knots, lobs in the kitchen sink and a handful of odds and ends and depends, just that little bit too much, on the reader's willingness to totally suspend disbelief. I don't think that's enough to condemn it though. Some readers might enjoy the novel's bonus-round, but I found I lost patience a little. I would definitely recommend this to thriller and murder mystery fans- I imagine it would make an exceptionally good plane-ride book- you need some serious chunks of time at your disposal to get properly immersed in this novel if you're going to de-tangle it properly.