The Baltimore Boys by Joel Dicker

Reviewed by Rod McLary

The Baltimore Boys is a novel about a tragedy. That disclosure is not a spoiler as the Prologue to the novel makes it very clear there will be a tragedy. In fact, it cannot be forgotten as some of the chapter headings – for example June 2010 Six years after the tragedy – remind the reader there is a tragedy in the pages ahead. There are further reminders in the text itself. It is unfortunate though that the continual reminders of the impending tragedy create a sense of impatience rather than of dramatic tension or foreboding.

But, there is more than one tragedy ahead as the novel slowly works its way to its conclusion.

The narrator – Marcus – is a best-selling author but he is struggling to find inspiration for his third novel. He travels to the town in Florida where many of his happiest memories were formed. By chance, he meets a young woman with whom he had a relationship eight years previously. Through this encounter, he finds the inspiration for his novel – and thus writes The Baltimore Boys. It is a novel of betrayal, hypocrisy, deceit and crime.

Three young boys on the cusp of adolescence come together as a group they call the Baltimore boys. The boys are Hillel, his cousin Marcus [the narrator] and Woodrow [Woody], a boy from the wrong side of the tracks but who is absorbed into the family named by the boys as the Baltimore Goldmans. Hillel is ‘a genius, a mixture of wild intelligence and an innate sense of provocation’. Marcus is the narrator of the novel who as an adult becomes a successful writer whose first novel is a best seller and for which the film rights are already sold; and Woody is ‘a polite likeable kid who always fought for a noble cause – an old lady who was insulted, a friend who was in trouble – along came Woody restoring justice with his fists’.

Hillel’s parents Saul and Anita are rich and urbane. Saul is a successful lawyer, Anita is a doctor ‘as lovely as a queen, radiant and elegant’ and drives ‘a black BMW worth the combined salaries of Marcus’ parents’. Marcus’ parents are less successful. His father – brother to Saul – is an engineer and his mother works in a shop. The author frequently describes – through Marcus – the financial gulf between the families and overuses superlatives to emphasise that gulf. Marcus acknowledges at one point that he would have swapped his parents for Hillel’s – his parents make him feel ashamed.

After befriending a boy with cystic fibrosis, the boys are introduced to his older sister Alexandra. Alexandra is two years older and is [of course] ‘a perfect beauty, [with] a delicate face and elegant nose’. The boys decide they will all love this girl with ‘the laughing eyes’. Thus, the seed for further betrayals and deceit is planted. This episode in itself demonstrates some of the shortcomings of the novel – the arrogance of the boys, the readiness of the adults [with one notable exception] to protect the boys from any criticism of their actions, and the failure of the boys to fully acknowledge the major harm they have done.

The novel cannot decide what kind of story it is telling – a story of a serious crime, a story exposing the hypocrisy and deceit of the rich, a story describing the breakdown of a family who has overreached itself, or a romance. These themes are all within the novel’s pages but none is fully realised. Somewhere in these pages, there is the bones of a taut dramatic novel but it is let down by the lack of focus and poor writing. The development of any dramatic tension is undermined by the writer’s use of different timelines between the chapters. While this literary device in the right hands can create a sense of discovery as the story unfolds and the backstory is gradually revealed, in this novel it simply contributes to the author’s failure to create any sense of drama.

The boys are too arrogant and self-obsessed and the rich adults are too self-absorbed for the reader to develop any sympathy for the characters. The overblown dialogue – surely no adolescent boy uses the words put in the mouths of Marcus, Hillel and Woody – does not help and it is not until the tragedy finally occurs that there is any sense of drama. By then it is too late and the novel drifts on to its conclusion.

The Baltimore Boys could have been a much better novel and it is disappointing that, at the end, it is one the reader is glad to put down.

Joël Dicker was born in Switzerland and has studied law. His first novel – The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair – was a huge success and won the Grand Prix du Roman de l’Academie Francais as well as selling in excess of 3 million copies around the world. The Baltimore Boys has sold 750000 copies in France. It was written originally in French and is translated into English.

The Baltimore Boys

[2017]

By Joël Dicker

Hatchette Australia

ISBN 978 0 85705 687 0

460pp; $32.99

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