For the Jewish Chronicle published April 28 2017
We all remember, I expect, days in our childhood or adolescence when it seemed as though nothing would ever happen, that the world would never move on and allow us to… do stuff.
That sense of torpor permeates every one of the 448 pages of Joel Dicker’s newest novel, The Baltimore Boys.
Dicker, a Swiss-born Jew, has been taken to global literary hearts after the worldwide success of his book, The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair, written in French in 2012. At that year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, editors fairly fell over themselves to buy the book, which was subsequently translated into 32 languages, and garlanded with literary prizes.
Inevitably there was a backlash, with allegations of plagiarism, which Dicker appears to have weathered. The truly weird thing about the Harry Quebert book is how the thoroughly European Dicker manages to persuade the reader that he is American through and through: the book is set in New Hampshire and — even allowing for the possibility of a clunky translation — it’s not hard to picture Dicker as a native son.
His protagonist, Marcus Goldman — who, for all I know, is an alter ego — is a novelist whose first book was a smash hit. He hits major writer’s block and goes to visit his old college professor, Harry Quebert, to try to get his creative juices going. (Harry, incidentally, just reeks of a kind of ersatz Saul Bellow, but that’s by the way).
Anyhow, in The Baltimore Boys, Marcus Goldman is again front and centre. This book is both a prequel and sequel and yet again, in the spirit of meta-fiction, we get references to his having written a hugely successful novel, and first encounter him when he is yet again trying for inspiration while working/relaxing in Florida.
A chance meeting with an old girlfriend (there are a lot of chance meetings in this book) decides Marcus on re-tracing his schooldays, and the idyllic time spent with his cousins in “the Goldman Gang”. Let me put it this way: I did not need to know every tiny little detail of Marcus Goldman’s/Joel Dicker’s teenage years in order to figure out that SOMETHING BAD was probably going to happen.
And indeed it does, and not a moment too soon, because, frankly, if Joel Dicker hadn’t decided to do something to his characters I might have been obliged to strike at them myself.
Besides the honking improbabilities of the plot there is the real peculiarity that having decided to call his hero Marcus Goldman and loaded him with an Uncle Saul, we never learn anything about the characters being Jewish.
It is possible that this is one of those novels which divides the genders, loved by men and not by women. If you are looking for a blockbuster, perhaps this is your answer. I can’t say I warmed to it.