You can't judge a book by its cover. Nor apparently, can you judge it by the blurb on the inside cover, by the reviews in the papers, or by the opinions of the booksellers, even when those opinions are given to you face to face as the straight goods by supposed experts. To what is the world coming?
It was in my local branch of Waterstones, a bookseller that touts its 'expert knowledge' of books as its main differentiator from low-brow competitors. Waiting at the check-out, with Pascal's 'Pensees' in my hand, my jaundiced and rheumy eye was caught by the cover of a paperback entitled 'The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair', a tall pile of which had been stacked by the till to encourage last-second compulsive purchases. The cover featured a detail of Hopper's painting of the downtown Orleans of 1950, a region of space-time that, for reasons too convoluted and controversial to be elaborated in the pages of a popular mainstream blog, holds a powerful nostalgic sway over me. Packing Pascal's 'Pensees' under my arm, I picked up the paperback and scanned the quotes that crammed the back cover and the first few pages: 'major literary event', 'startling talent', 'possibly the book of the year', 'expertly realised', 'top-class literary thriller', and more of the same. A literary thriller, I thought, what could be more satisfying?
By this time I had shuffled to become the head of the queue, and I asked the youngster at the check-out if she'd read the book, and was it any good. No, she hadn't read it herself, but her colleague Hayden had, and he said it was brilliant...
Ha! (laughs with derision at the memory). The Truth About the Herbert Quarry Affair is quite possibly the worst book I have ever read. Its plot and dialogue are as natural and convincing as Jordan's breasts. I will have more to say upon this subject tomorrow (literary criticism that is, not Jordan's breasts). In the meantime, judge for yourself. Here are the first few pages of the work in question...
“Your first chapter is important, Marco.”
“Because it is the one that most of your readers will read first.”
“So if they think it is a pile of crap they will give up on your book and give it to a charity shop.”
“What does that matter? If they have already paid for the book I will have got my cut anyway.”
“If the charity shops are flooded with relatively new copies of your book, that will undermine sales of the originals.”
“I hadn’t thought of that. What should I do?”
“Lampoon the work of a best-selling author, or write the first thing that comes into your head. Better still, lampoon the work of a best-selling author by writing the first thing that comes into your head.”
After I had won my third Nobel prize I found that I was really struggling to figure out how I was to win my fourth. I decided to look-up my old mentor, Herbert Quarry. I had bought a new Range Rover with my prize money, so I had it shipped to the United States, collected it at Pier 54 in New York, and drove to Clarksville, a small town in Newfoundland, where Herbert had a house on a beach overlooking the ocean.
At Clarksville I stopped for a coffee in a coffee shop. The young waitress asked my what I was doing in town.
"I'm visiting a famous author who lives here in a house overlooking the beach."
"Oh, do you mean Herbert Quarry? How exciting!"
She had pronounced Herbert the French way, 'airbear'. Her manageress, who, I divined, was also her mother, overheard and chided her daughter: "Don't betray your ignorance, Jacqueline. If the man is a famous author he is hardly likely to be French."
When I got to Herbert’s house I was going to knock on the door but it was already open, so I walked in. I walked through the hall and into his living room. He was sitting on the floor, his arms and face covered in blood. The dismembered body of a teenage girl was on the hardwood floor in front of him. He seemed unaware of my presence, being so absorbed in feeling the sticky feeling of the girl’s blood which was congealing on the floor. He was sliding his finger tips through it then rubbing his fingers against his thumb. Unsure of what to say I coughed to announce myself.
“Marco”, he said. “What are you doing here?”
“Herbert, I have Nobel prize-winner’s block. I need you to help me.”
“Of course I will do what I can. Although as I have told you many times before, Marco, you have greatness within you, and it is up to you to set it free. But before I can help you, you must help me.”
"Why, what is the problem?”
He nodded at the various meaty sections of corpse, draped with the shreds of what had once been a lime green dress. “Those. I have been framed for a grisly murder. I am certain to go to the electric chair unless you intervene to prevent the bumbling incompetent law enforcement officials from leaping to a false conclusion.”
Suddenly we heard the howl of sirens, the screech of tortured tyres skidding to a stop, the thud of slamming doors, the slap of running feet, and the cocking sounds of guns being cocked, then it seemed as if an army of police officers had streamed into the room. I suddenly realised Herbert had a long knife in his hands. He waived his knife, and one of the police officers dropped it in an evidence bag. Sacred blue, I thought, Herbert is in deep s***. After handcuffing Herbert, the leading police officer looked at me and said:
“Don’t I recognise you? Aren’t you Marco Orman, the famous palaeontologist, business-man, social theorist, art critic, quantum physicist, brain surgeon, genetic engineer, architect, composer, play-write, critic, and kendo master?”
“It is a pleasure meeting you. Perhaps you would like to assist us in our investigation of this heinous crime.”
“Thank you officer. But I would prefer to run my own investigation, as we are likely to be more successful if we work independently.”
“As you wish.”