Dicker’s latest novel (end of May 2020) is probably one of the most highly anticipated books in the French publishing arena for the foreseeable future and is poised to be this summer’s hit if we can believe the hype surrounding the release. But I found a somewhat rehashed recipe that, although Dicker introduces an interesting narrative vehicle at the beginning of this story, narrowly fails to provide that which long-time fans have been hankering for : innovation. Read on for more, there are no spoilers.
You’ve read this book before. Maybe not literally, but if you’ve read any Dicker since ‘Harry Quebert’ before and saw a couple of tired Hollywood blockbuster sequels with disappointing endings, then yes, you’ve read this before.
Before starting, I want to clarify that I have been a big fan of Dicker since the very start. The real start, meaning since his first book : ‘The Last Days of Our Fathers.’ I loved his storytelling in the first one, and was even more enchanted by his talented narrative structuring of a story in his second and third :’The Truth about Harry Quebert’ and then ‘Baltimore Boys’. That fast page-turner style, short and captivating chapters, characters inspired by an old America that made us hunker for the past and above all : his keen talent for developing a story simultaneously from the past and the present. All the elements of a book you don’t forget quickly. This wasn’t that.
My first ‘disappointment’ (although disenchantment might be more appropriate) was his last book, ‘The disappearing of Stephanie Mailer’ which I found to be a near-incomprehensible, overstuffed, superfluously expansive attempt at recreating the atmosphere he had brought us in ‘The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair’. I sympathise with authors who reach tremendous success at a young age, as Dicker did with his first and second books. I imagine the crushing weight of having to ‘redo the trick now’ has devastating effects not only on an author’s motivation, but also on his or her creativity. So what do you do in times of moral and creative hazard? You rehash what worked before. That’s what Dicker did with Mailer and in some extend (thankfully a bit less still) with this latest one. What was true for Mailer remains true for 622 : the story is tailored to fit a more international audience (because movie and TV rights to sell), the narrative structure is the same, the characters are disappointingly superficial clichés despite being described at large over the course of nearly 600 pages, the story (and it’s inhabitants) have more twists and bumps than a Belgian highway. You see when you write a near-600 page novel, you need to keep your reader going. So you need a lot of twists and bumps, and to achieve this he splits the branches of his character’s lives so much that the tips reach the stratosphere. But in stratosphere, the air is thin, and so are a lot of these characters and their backstories. With “Stephanie Mailer” Dicker thought that to achieve the same success, or even more so than with Quebert, all he needed to do was to take the same recipe and add more ingredients. The problem is that it became an indigestible, convoluted piece in which he had tried to outsmart even himself.
This one suffers from the same fate to a large extent, but is somewhat saved by a novelty introduced at the very beginning. We’re not following some random made up character, but we’re following Dicker himself. Joel, living in Geneva (a word you’ll read about a million times more) is in between writing books and stuck. He’s sad his mentor has passed away and fears never to be able to write again. It’s an interesting vehicle that could lead to an amazing book. Sadly though, Dicker writes himself away too quickly in lieu of the main story. In lieu of “Stephanie Mailer II after a session of Control+F & Control+V.” I wanted to know more about his story. About his coming of age story. Not the unconvincingly far-fetched story he dropped as an avalanche on top of his own storyline. The principal plot revolves around the solving of a murder that occurred in one of the fanciest Swiss hotels, and you’ve guessed it – it’s in room 622 – , decades ago. As per usual, multiple simultaneously interweaving characters and plot lines are quickly let loose on your imagination, all of which converge at a snail’s pace to a single end near the end of the book. The characters seem to be pulled out in vivendi from movie scripts that barely made it onto Netflix. The underlying story – the banking world in Switzerland – is admittedly a fresh framework and carries huge potential because the lenient banking laws that have governed that world for decades will never cease to fascinate, yet they remain largely unused. It’s all about the hotel(s).
What I was most disappointed with was the ‘Deus Ex Machina’ Dicker pulled out of his hat near the end of the story to make it all come together. Kind of come together. I actually had to reread the revealing passage, fearing I had missed out on something crucially and that would result in the Deus Ex Machine only being a misunderstanding no my part. But after rereading it, I could only come to the inescapable conclusion that it was in fact real. It was as definitive as black ink on paper can ever be. Don’t misunderstand me : he needed to pull out a rabbit from his hat because as usual he had tried to outsmart everyone including himself and had thus written himself into a corner. But for the trick to work the rabbit needs to be alive when it reappears. And it needs to be a rabbit.
The most enjoying part of this novel – and mainly the reason why I will rate this slightly better as his last one – were the passages where he reminisces about Bernard de Fallois, his old mentor, and how he played a pivotal role in getting his career started. Early on, we learn that Dicker wanted this book to be a tribute to Bernard, but in my eyes if he had wanted to write a tribute about his old mentor, he should’ve written a tribute to his old mentor. Not an underused vehicle to carry his otherwise rehashed story along. Not a book waiting to be turned into a movie or worse – a ten part miniseries – under the thinly veiled pretence that it’s an ode to his mentor. And I really do feel while reading those few passages that he really intended it to be a tribute worthy of the Egyptian pyramids, but could then not escape the clutches of his old ways and relapsed into the already known success recipe. I really wanted to read that book, the tribute, because through those pages where he recounts old meetings and colourful encounters with Bernard I was able to see a glimpse of the young, talented and most of all : hungry new writer we had all come to love through the course of his first books.
Make no mistake, this book will sell well and is entertaining to read on the beach without thinking too much about it. But it’s also a book that’ll end up at the bottom of the beach bag at the end of summer without having been finished and the reader will be no worse off. And Dicker can do better. I know that, you know that, and I feel he knows that. But it would mean abandoning the recipe he has now used so much and which brought him this level of success to risk something he might fail at.
There’s a saying between successful thriller authors : “Write or Vanish”. When the content is subordinate to the volume, you need to pump out a lot of work to be remembered. That’s how you end up with Patterson’s and Steel’s, and XXX who pump out more books than there are seasons in a year. I would urge Dicker to go against that idea. To go upstream. To write less, but deeper. Because I want to feel that same excitement I felt when reading him years ago. And somewhere I’m sure, he wants it too.