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Lolita it is not. Joel Dicker’s novel, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, is an effective thriller. Its closest match, I think, is more a Law and Order episode, or even a video game, than a P.D. James novel. Naturally, this can be a good or bad thing, depending on what you are looking for in the read.

I will lead with some criticism, but honestly, I thought the book was a good, fun read.

Here is the bad: the novel is surprisingly without tension; sure, there is the matter of 15-year old Nola Kellergan’s death, but everything else that happens isn’t all that surprising. Take Marcus Goldman; he’s a young writer, looking to avoid becoming a one-hit wonder. But he is having trouble starting his second novel. Considering that his mentor from college, Harry Quebert, is charged with Nola’s murder and that Quebert’s masterpiece happens to be about an illicit relationship, it takes him a surprisingly long time to be moved to write about this affair. Although Marcus’s investigation into the murder is a plot device to move the story forward, it still would have been nice to have the plot unfold and not feel like the writer is trying to hit all the right beats before the next commercial break.

There is a surprisingly lack of friction in the novel. It just feels like the story and twists will all unfold. That’s why I say it’s like a TV show; actually the pacing makes it like a game. Every interview with a witness, every scene with him looking around, reminds me of Sierra On-line games (wow… is that dating myself… games like King’s Quest, Gabriel Knight, and the whole genre of pixel-clicking adventure games). Because adventure games are generally not about reflexes, they generally let the player has as much time as she needs in the scene. Marcus gets to hang around until he extracts enough information.

One thing that will draw attention to the story is that before each chapter, we get treated to a scene where Quebert gives Marcus writing advice. The advice itself isn’t controversial, but the fact that these tips are here invites comparison to the actual writing in the story.

Yes, we are treated to a meta-story, and again, we are left to ruminate on the possibility that Mr. Dicker might have had a similar struggle, having achieved a measure of literary fame before The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. The parts about writing as craft and as a calling are actually rather interesting.

And despite the lack of dramatic tension, the novel definitely has provenance.  I think the twists and turns are generally justified and logical. It does not feel like the twists come from nowhere. The novel has a fairly sunny disposition; it isn’t dark and moody. If anything, the most cynical parts of the book deal with commentary on public perception and not on human nature that seem extremely comfortable with crime.

 I was happily surprised that the novel did not veer into the salacious, despite the many ways in which it could have turned in that direction. All this is to say that the novel was rather enjoyable.

I don’t think the editor of this set of crime stories would like me to use the word “charming” to describe  Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wivesan anthology edited by Sarah Weinman, but I think the word suffices. It has no sensational horrors,  typified by the genre today, but the crimes  hinted will be recognized to modern fans of police procedurals on TV and novels. The charming part of it is that the lurid is not emphasized, likely due to the convention of the times. The brevity of the the short story keeps things snappy – without the multiple twists so endemic to crime dramas today. All the more impressive then that we get fairly detailed sketches of the characters, their external and internal lives, and the pressures they succumbed to in order to commit their crimes. In other words, these are well-crafted short stories, above all else.

This last is the point of the collection: for a significant length of time, crime fiction was actually dominated by women writers. Ms. Weinman had a significant repertoire to draw from. The stories do surprise, not only turning on notions of femininity and maternity but also are well crafted suspense.

I have read a number of novels, recently, that all concern relationships between women and between women and men. In general, I had read these types of novels, in the past, which were written by men. I am certain the authors of a given gender can write great characters of the opposite gender. At the same time, artistic portrayals of women in other media (I’m thinking of movies and TV shows) lack nuance and can run to stereotypes (the madonna/whore split and the manicpixiedreamgirl).

In short, rightly or wrongly, these great novels and stories I had been reading convey, at a minimum, some authenticity to the thoughts and deeds of the characters. They are subservient only to the whims of their authors’ points-of-views, and not so much as a device or supporting character to a male protagonist.

My favorite story is Vera Caspary’s “Sugar and Spice”. The turns are a bit obvious; the real gem in the story is the rivalry between the rich-but-ugly and poor-but-beautiful cousins. Margaret Millar’s The People Across the Canyon” and Miriam Allen Deford’s “Mortmain” both had superbly constructed mood, culminating in a true sense of terror. Helen Nielsen’s “Don’t Sit Under the Apply Tree” was unsettling, as we come to see how the manipulation involved in the center of the story.

Overall, these stories were extremely effective examples of crime and suspense, because the lasting sense one gets from these stories is that one should neither trust nor like men and women very much.

In many ways, Strangers on a Train is a much more satisfying work than Crime and Punishment. In broad strokes, both detail the guilt-wracked protagonists after each committed murder.  Guy Haines was browbeaten into committing murder, which seemed a questionable plot point. But what struck me as eminently believable was the way in which Guy’s mind grew distraught, even as his life continued apace.

I think it seems in vogue to write about murder as if any one of us can commit it. From my reading, Highsmith took the opposite thesis. People who kill are a little bit off. Charles Bruno is the son of a rich  man; he’s indolent and insolent. He is a little bit too close to his mother, and he probably harbors homosexual tendencies (it’s not weird now, but in the 50’s, it was). He certainly has a strong sense of the fantastical. He feels that Guy is the only person who can understand him and that they can escape together and recount their crime.
Guy and Bruno meet on a train. They talk, and Bruno senses some hint of tension in Guy. Guy has a wife whom he wishes to divorce – the very reason for the train trip – and Bruno has a father who apparently is an ogre. Bruno suggests what is the perfect crime, and has become a detective genre cliche. Bruno would kill Miriam, Guy’s soon to be ex-wife and Guy would kill Bruno’s father. The perfect crime, as the killers would have no obvious links to the victims, amounting to a random murder. Guy is disturbed and appalled by Bruno; I think he senses something is off-kilter about Bruno. Needless to say, Bruno is crazy, and decides to force matters and kills Miriam. Part of this might be because Bruno hates women. He says he hates his father because the father is an adulterer. But it turns out that Bruno’s mom gives as good as she gets, having her own stable of men to toy with. As another hint as to the fact that Bruno lives in his own head, he tells Guy that his mother is an example of the purity of women. Other evidence to show that Bruno is mentally unstable is that Bruno cannot leave Guy alone. He needs to drop hints to the detective who is following him. He involves himself in Guy’s life. In other words, establishing the connections that make it much easier to to link the two men.

What was interesting to me is how Highsmith handled Guy’s eventual descent into his own madness and commits murder. It is as if the motive is for Guy to shut Bruno up. Not necessarily to avoid being framed for a murder he didn’t commit, or that he wished to indulge in an animal behavior, but to kill so that Bruno would stop bothering him. Guy is portrayed as a depressed individual. He can’t take joy in his success. He is divorcing Miriam because she cheated on him, often. There is the element that Guy feels ill-used and played for a fool. He can’t be happy with his new girlfriend. He cannot confide in her, certainly not the murder but also very few other things.  It doesn’t take too much to disrupt Guy’s life, because he is already on the edge. He couldn’t be happy with his life before the murder, and he lets guilt take over after the murder. That is the one thing Guy can do extremely well – play martyr.

But I thought the best part of the novel was in how it slowly developed that others began to notice Guy’s odd behavior. It was a neat trick to portray it subtly, where others begin to see that something is not quite right with Guy. This is true especially in how Guy’s fiance notices that Guy goes from depression to something wilder.

In similar fashion, Highsmith’s short stories, in the collection The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith, show that she has little sympathy for humankind. Although there is a collection of character sketches that paint women in a terrible light (Little Tales of Misogyny),  in truth, no one came off looking too sympathetic. That’s not true; the collection opens up with a number of stories about animals that commit murder. Highsmith portrays these murderers as eminently justified. Everyone else is selfish, ugly, and dark. We see murder committed in cold blood, as an afterthought, for the joy of it, and from negligence and indifference. It’s impressive that, to my eyes, the stories are distinctive enough such that they don’t seem repetitive.

My favorite story is “The Romantic”. It is about a secretary who gets stood up on a date. Eventually, she starts going on made-up dates, where she sits and enjoys her time at a bar. She imagines the men she is waiting for. Knowing that these men will never show up, she feels liberated and happy.  She comes to realize that she very much prefers these pretend dates. So much so that when she is asked to go out on a date, she stands her date up. Her imagination gives her more satisfaction then men (and perhaps even other companions.) While it isn’t quite the slamming of the door in Ibsen’s “The Doll House”, I think it is a strong statement to make: Fuck them; I don’t need them.

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