Joel Dicker, author of "The Truth About the Harry Quebert...

Joel Dicker, author of "The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair" (Penguin, May 2014). Credit: Jeremy Spierer

THE TRUTH ABOUT THE HARRY QUEBERT AFFAIR, by Joel Dicker, translated from the French by Sam Taylor. Penguin Books, 640 pp., $18 paper.

I just finished "The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair," by 28-year-old Swiss writer Joel Dicker, and all I can say is, God save Europe.

According to the jacket copy, this book sold a million copies in France, won three literary prizes there and was a finalist for the Prix Goncourt, while knocking Dan Brown from No. 1 spots in Italy and Spain. I am not a Brown fan, but this book makes him look like Marcel Proust.

Let's assume that part of what makes the novel seem so awkward and high-schoolish -- there is not one fresh image, non-stereotypical character or interesting sentence in this lumbering contrivance -- is that it is set in the United States, a country the author knows only from summer vacations in his youth. Perhaps it also lost something in translation from the French.

One hopes so, for the sake of the Prix Goncourt.

Typical of this book is the long-dead character at its center: a 15-year-old blond nymphet, whom we meet "barefoot by the ocean, her sandals in her hand, dancing in the rain and skipping in the waves" -- but will before long see performing a sexual act, described in the crudest terms, with the police chief. "With her wide eyes full of love, she made me feel ten feet tall," is how Harry Quebert, supposedly America's leading literary novelist, describes his obsession with the girl.

Her name was Nola Kellergan and now Quebert is suspected of her 1975 murder. His protégée, the narrator of the current volume, is a handsome sap named Marcus Goldman who had a huge success with his first book but is having a terrible time with his second. He gets a $3 million contract to go to New Hampshire and write about the investigation of his disgraced and jailed mentor. Almost every other character in the book does a turn as prime suspect until Marcus untwists the final kink in the story.

Probably the most annoying thing about "Harry Quebert" is its attempt to say something meaningful about writing. While zooming back and forth between the period of the murder and the present, and offering self-deprecating vignettes from the biography of "Marcus the Magnificent," it offers 31 golden rules of writing, as transmitted from Quebert to Goldman. These appear on pages with plenty of white space to guarantee their impressive import. Just one sample, and then I'll leave Mr. Dicker in peace.

"Learn to love your failures, Marcus, because it is your failures that will make you what you are."

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