Monday, 14 June 2021

A BIG BOOK WITH A STRONG FEELING: JOEL DICKER'S DISAPPEARANCE OF STEPHANIE MAILER

 

In 1994, a brutal quadruple-murder shook the seaside resort town of Orphea, in the tony Hamptons on Long Island. The body of a jogger was found in the road outside a house; inside the house the mayor, his wife and young son all lay dead. Two young state troopers cracked the case, and in a car chase drove the killer off a bridge into a river, where he died, a presumed suicide.

Twenty-five years later, one of the those troopers, Jesse Rosenberg, is about to retire. He's now a captain, known as Captain 100%, for his perfect record in solving cases. But his retirement reception gets crashed by journalist Stephanie Mailer, who tells Jesse that he is, in fact, Captain 99%. He did not solve the biggest case, the one that made his career, and enigmatically, she says he failed to see what was right in front of his eyes. She leaves and tells him she will see him later. But she doesn't. That night, she disappears.

The Swiss writer Joel Dicker's follow-up to The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair is, at first glance, a complex locked-room (or locked village) mystery, in which the stories of twenty years past are revisited and opened up to new examination. But in reality, it is a digging into character: a series of character sketches whose interaction centers on the crime, and whose changes come about as information is discovered and revealed. In a sense, this creates a story-telling dilemma, in terms of what information to release to the reader, and when to it. From the point of view of the classic locked-village mystery, this can be a fault, as sometimes that which is withheld would seem normal to have appeared much earlier by the process of natural selection.

But Dicker has avoided that trampling over the basic whodunit puzzle, with the aim of revealing more about the characters, through the nifty way the novel is structured, with multiple flashbacks and multiple points of view. These intertwine: Jesse's own very unusual upbringing, and his first love Natasha, for whom he pines, have their own impact on the tale, while the former police chief, Kirk Hayward who has moved out to Hollywood and written a play which supposedly will reveal the name of the true killer—a situation which does create more mystery but also makes one wonder about the sense of realistic policing (and indeed realistic murdering!) once the play becomes the focus of the town's theatre festival, the high point of its tourist season.

“I wanted to try something different,” Dicker said during his virtual UK book launch. “I wanted a challenge, to write a choral book with lots of characters and sub-plots. But this is Orphea—and Orpheus was, of course, all about not looking back, which is a great irony. Before Chief Hayward's play, the festival's production was going to be Uncle Vanya; despite Jesse and Natasha's backgrounds in Russian it's hard to see parallels between Vanya and the situation in Orphea except for one, perhaps: in Vanya happiness seems to be something that eludes us in this life. It's interesting that Dicker's characters all seem to be chasing some kinds of unachievable happiness, but in his ending Dicker plays further with that. His approach to the book echoes some of this: “it can work like a crime novel,” he said, “investigation becomes like a guide, a path you follow to the characters.”

Dicker said he chose the name Stephanie Mailer partly out of connection with Norman Mailer. “I create a character before I give the name,” he explained, and when I thinking of the town I wanted to have a lake called Deer Lake, which reminded me of Mailer's novel, The Deer Park. It was that simple. Or not quite, because in the translation, from the French, Deer Lake becomes Stag Lake, so the Mailer connection disappears!

The Disappearance of Stephanie Mailer is a big book, with a deep cast of characters and a plot woven through two decades. There are multiple twists before the end, but the real pleasure may come from the construction itself, like a play (perhaps Chekhov's The Wood Demon?) with a big cast, an expansive set, and a sea of revelations. Talking with Dicker, I mentioned my favourite Swiss writers, Jacques Chessex and Friedrich Durrenmatt, both of whom used the framework of the crime novel to investigate issues of both character and society. Both, however, worked primarily in shorter books. “Yes,” he said, “a book is what we see before we read; a big book may scare the reader but give a very good feeling to have finished. A short book is a strong feeling.” What Dicker has produced is a big book, but with a strong feeling.

The Disappearance of Stephanie Mailer by Joel Dicker

translated by Howard Curtis; MacLehose Press £20.00 ISBN9780857059208

this review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

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