I couldn’t resist and had to read this book and participate in this blog blast:
The Disappearance of Stephanie Mailer: A gripping new thriller with a killer twist by Joël Dicker (Author), Howard Curtis (Translator)
A twisting new thriller from the author of The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair
In the summer of 1994, the quiet seaside town of Orphea reels from the discovery of four murders.
Two young police officers, Jesse Rosenberg and Derek Scott crack the case and identify the killer.
Then, twenty years later and just as he is on the point of taking early retirement, Rosenberg is approached by Stephanie Mailer, a journalist who believes he made a mistake back in 1994 and that the real murderer is still out there, perhaps ready to strike again. But before she can give any more details, Stephanie Mailer mysteriously disappears, and Rosenberg and Scott are forced to confront the possibility that her suspicions might have been proved true.
What happened to Stephanie Mailer?
What did she know?
And what really happened in Orphea all those years ago?
TRANSLATED FROM THE FRENCH BY HOWARD CURTIS
About the author:
JOËL DICKER was born in Geneva in 1985, where he studied Law. The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair was nominated for the Prix Goncourt and won the Grand Prix du Roman de l’Académie Française and the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens. It has sold more than 3.6 million copies in 42 countries.
HOWARD CURTIS is an award-winning translator of Italian and French, including books by Fabio Geda, Gianrico Carofiglio, Jean-Claude Izzo and Giorgio Scerbanenco.
Remember The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair?
- A huge bestseller in Europe on publication
- Joel Dicker was just 28 when this, his second book, came out. He became so famous in his native Switzerland; his picture was plastered all over public transport in his hometown Geneva
- 250,000 copies were sold in the UK alone
- Sky Witness series starring Patrick Dempsey aired in Autumn 2018
PRAISE FOR THE TRUTH ABOUT THE HARRY QUEBERT AFFAIR
‘Maybe, just possibly, the book of the year’ – Simon Mayo
‘An expertly realised, addictive Russian doll of a whodunnit’ – Daily Mail
‘A top-class literary thriller that smoothly outclasses its rivals’ – The Times
‘Should delight any reader who has felt bereft since finishing Gone Girl or Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy’ – Metro
‘Unimpeachably terrific’ – New York Times
‘The cleverest, creepiest book you’ll read this year’ – Daily Telegraph
I thank the publisher, Quercus Books, and NetGalley for providing me an ARC copy of this novel, which I freely chose to review.
I read and reviewed The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair (you can check my review here) almost a couple of years back (during my summer holidays. Remember those?), and I was enthralled by it, to the point where I got a couple of other books by the same author, which I intended to read. Being aware that his books are normally quite long and you need to keep your wits about you when you’re reading them, I’d been postponing that moment (I don’t need to tell you that things have been weird recently, and I think a lot of us have found it difficult to concentrate), but when I saw this book was available, and I was invited to participate in the blog tour, it was all the motivation I needed to plunge into it. I also realised why the name of the book was so familiar to me. I’ve seen it published in its Spanish translation and doing quite well, but I hadn’t realised it hadn’t been released in English yet.
Sorry for the long detour, but I think it’s a reflection of the impact the book has had on me, as it has a way of going off on tangents, or so they seem at the time. I wonder what would happen if somebody else wrote a book like this, and it reached the hands of a standard editor, who would follow the usual advice of removing anything that did not serve to move the plot forward, avoid unnecessary detours, streamline the story… This is a long book, with twists and turns galore, cul-de-sacs plot-wise, and of course, secrets, red herrings, clues, and revelations spread merrily around. I can imagine the author being advised to get rid of characters, or to, perhaps, leave out some of the side-stories and plotlines, maybe write separate novelettes or bonus chapters for followers which would include the background story of some of those characters. But this is a Joël Dicker novel, and he has proven more than once that he can get away with murder. Quite literally.
I am not sure I can talk about the plot in detail without revealing any spoilers, and I want to avoid that at all costs. Without going into the story, I can tell you that what struck me the most, thinking about it, is that although this book includes many standard plot devices and even clichés (you have the detective about to leave the police force, trying to solve a last case just before he hands back his badge; you have a female police detective trying to fit into a small town’s police force whose members are less than accepting of women among their ranks; you have a corrupt politician; a middle-aged man in a powerful position cheating on his wife with his young secretary; an ambitious reporter going after a story at all costs; the spoilt daughter of a rich man who’s mixing with the wrong company and getting herself into trouble…) they all fit in together and create a whole that is not in itself a challenge of any of the tropes, but something other.
I thought I could share this video to give you more of an idea…
In some ways, the story brought to my mind the term of pastiche as used by Fredrick Jameson when talking about postmodern writing. It is not a parody of other genres, it’s a celebration. The author knows and loves a multitude of genres, and rather than poke fun at them, he uses them to create a narrative that is many things in one. Let me count… the genres (or subgenres): 1) the mystery. Overall, there is a mystery hanging over the whole novel and pulling all its strings and characters together, like a centrifugal force, towards Orphea, the small town where most of the events and actions converge, and a character in its own right. The title hints at the mystery, and the disappearance of Stephanie Mailer, a journalist, is what sets the whole story in motion. I’ve mentioned red herrings, twists and turns, clues… We even have secret messages and codes, and we are likely to recognise the typical elements of a cozy mystery, with the setting in a small lovely town in the Hamptons, a friendly bookshop, a charming theatre festival…; 2) the police procedural. I’ve talked about a detective who’s about to leave the force, Jessie. He is challenged by Stephanie Mailer to reconsider the first case he solved, the beginning of his successful career, and that turns his world inside out. He manages to convince his partner at the time, Derek, to join him in the investigation (he took a desk job after the case, for reasons that become clear much later), and they get the assistance of the most recent recruit into the small-town police force, a female officer, Anna, who is having trouble fitting into the close-knit and somewhat misogynistic department. They review the old case, investigate the new clues, and keep digging into evidence, old and new; 3) the noir novel/thriller. A local gangster who uses underhand methods to gain influence over men and turn them into his slaves (underage girls and torture are featured as well), has a night club with an alluring singer, a brutal henchman by his side, and who manages to rub too many people the wrong way plays a part; 4) the second-chance/reinventing yourself story. Anna, the policewoman, has reinvented herself more than once. She studied Law and started working for her father’s company but soon realised this was not for her and trained to enter the police. She quickly became a detective, got married to a lawyer working for her father, and became a negotiator. Her husband wasn’t terribly keen on the idea, things went terribly wrong, and she decided to leave it all behind. Unfortunately, what she finds in Orphea, the charming town, isn’t exactly what she bargained for; 4) the coming of age story. Dakota, the daughter of a rich man, the CEO of an important TV channel, keeps getting into trouble, mixes with the wrong companies, and seems unable to keep her life in order. But there is a reason behind her behaviour; 5) small-town American and its dark underbelly. The lovely town of Orphea might seem idyllic, but it hides all kinds of corrupt practices, characters who are not as squeaky clean as they seem to be, and there is a dark secret (well, a few) about to burst open; 6) dark comedy/farce. We have a talentless ex-chief of police who desperately wants to become a successful dramatist, and he’d do anything to get his play (he’s been working on it for twenty years, so you can forgive him for that) onto the stage. We also have an important literary critic who’d love nothing better than to become an actor, and he will subject himself to any humiliation willingly to be given that chance. He’s joined by another chief-of-police who also wants to shine on stage (Oh, and how they do…). And the play… But those are not the only comedic elements in the story. Jessie’s back story, and his maternal grandparents, also seem strait from a less-than-gentle comedy (expletives and all; and I must confess there is a blonde wig somewhere that made me think of ET), and some of the most extreme behaviours of some of the characters seem taken right out of the Looney Tunes (the original Warner Bros series); 7) romance/romantic novels. We have quite a few stories that have romance at its heart, some set in the past and not standard HEA fare (Jessie and Natasha’s love story, with something of the Greek tragedy about it), Derek and his wife, the critic and his lover (I’m keeping my mouth firmly shut about this), the town mayor and his wife, the local newspaper editor and his wife, and… (sorry, no spoilers); 8) the story I mentioned of a middle-aged man who falls madly in love/lust with his young secretary, featuring adultery, manipulation, extortion and… I’m sure I’m forgetting some, but this wasn’t meant to be an all-inclusive list.
If all that sounds like chaos, well, you have a point, but, quoting Shakespeare, I’d say “there is a method to his madness”.
As you can guess, talking about all the characters would take forever, and I won’t try. I’ll only say that although many are not particularly likeable, at least, to begin with, we get to see many of them under a different light by the end of the novel (not always for the better, but most of them come out of it as quite human and relatable). The same goes for the themes, and you’ve got a good idea about those already from my comments about the genres. Guilt, lost opportunities, the consequences of keeping secrets from those we love and from everybody, and the cost of trying to find out the truth when there are powerful incentives at play to keep it buried, come up often in the novel, and there are multiple references not only to other genres, but also to classic plots and works of literature (the name of the town and the reference to Orpheus could easily apply to Jessie and the mourning of his lost love, but this is just one of many).
The novel is narrated by a variety of characters, and we hear the first-person narratives of quite a few of them (not all, but many). The way it works is: somebody is telling us what is happening (Jessie, for example) in 2014, the time when the contemporary story is set, and he finds a clue or he talks to somebody, and then, as if in a flashback, we are transported to 1994, and, usually in the third person, we get to see/experience that scene. There are multiple references to the actual time and to the person whose perspective we are reading, but these are interrupted by the trips to the past, or by somebody’s memories (like those of Dakota, at some point). That results in readers getting both, a personal perspective of the story, from several points of view, and also a narration of past events, seemingly from an omniscient point of view. It didn’t always run completely smoothly (I’m fully aware I was reading an early ARC copy, so some of the issues might have to do with that, and they were very minor), but I felt it was a satisfying alternative to the long stretches of “telling” so typical in classical mysteries. I’ve only read another novel by this author, but from the comments I’ve read, I understand that he’s also used a similar narrative style in several of his novels (and I definitely intend to read more of them in the future), so it might have become his trademark, although it’s too early in his career to come to conclusions.
There are plenty of memorable quotes here as well, but not quite as many as in Harry Quebert. This is a long book, and readers need to be on their guard and pay close attention to all they read, but as I’ve said, temporal changes are signposted, there is a list of characters at the back, and the writing isn’t precious or overly complicated. There are plenty of detours, and the writing meanders rather than rushing at breakneck speed towards the finish line, but I enjoyed getting side-tracked and following the character’s stories. After reading many stories that strictly follow the rules, I enjoy those who go their own way and take risks, although I know many people won’t share my feelings.
Did I guess the mystery? Well, which one? I did guess quite a few of the important twists and picked up on many of the clues, although no, I didn’t guess the final reveal, and I think that most people won’t until very close to the end, because of the way the story is constructed. But I must confess to being more taken by some of the side-stories at times and not being that concerned about the actual name by the end. It reminded me of a scene in Amadeus when Mozart describes to the emperor a particular scene in one of his operas, where he keeps adding more and more voices singing all in unison. A tour de force. Yes, as the ending neared I kept wondering how many more turns the plot would take before the actual final curtain. In case you’re worried, the main mystery is solved. (What does that mean? Well, you go ahead and read the book if you want to know). And yes, there is a coda of sorts, and I liked what we’re told happens to the characters later on. I’m not sure it’s the ideal ending, but I enjoyed it. If I have to choose from the two books I’ve read by Dicker, I prefer The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair, but that was one of my favourite books in recent years, so this is no mean feat either.
So, would I recommend it? Of course. With some provisos. Be sure you have plenty of time to read it. As I’ve said, it’s complicated, and it brings many stories together, so if you only have time to pick it up a few minutes at a time over days and days, you might get quite confused, or you might have to keep going back. It’s important to set aside sufficient time to read it so that you can keep the details (or at least the main details) fresh and straight in your mind. Also, if you prefer slim, streamlined, and bare narratives, or straightforward mysteries with no flights of fancy or backstories, this is not for you. If you’re happy to be taken for a ride, enjoy long books, and like to mix and match genres and challenge conventions, you’ll definitely have a good time. I would also recommend it to writers thinking of writing mysteries or crime novels, as it is impossible to read this book and not ponder and keep thinking about how it has been written.
I’ll leave you with a quote from The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair, which I feel applies here: A good book, Marcus, is a book you are sorry to have finished.
Thanks to the author, translator, and publishers for this book, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to spread the word if you are intrigued by what you’ve read. Let me know what you think, and remember to keep safe!