Disappeared in Translation: Dear Mr. M [Review]

Title: Dear Mr. M
Author: Herman Koch
Publisher: Hogarth
Published: Sept 2016 (orig. May 2014)
Genre(s): mystery, Dutch (translation), thriller, suspense
Synopsis* (via goodreads.com):  

Once a celebrated writer, M's greatest success came with a suspense novel based on a real-life disappearance. The book was called The Reckoning*, and it told the story of Jan Landzaat, a history teacher who went missing one winter after his brief affair with Laura, his stunning pupil. Jan was last seen at the holiday cottage where Laura was staying with her new boyfriend. Upon publication, M.'s novel was a bestseller, one that marked his international breakthrough.

That was years ago, and now M.'s career is almost over as he fades increasingly into obscurity. But not when it comes to his bizarre, seemingly timid neighbour who keeps a close eye on him. Why?

From various perspectives, Herman Koch tells the dark tale of a writer in decline, a teenage couple in love, a missing teacher, and a single book that entwines all of their fates. Thanks to
The Reckoning, supposedly a work of fiction, everyone seems to be linked forever, until something unexpected spins the "story" off its rails.  

With racing tension, sardonic wit, and a world-renowned sharp eye for human failings, Herman Koch once again spares nothing and no one in his gripping new novel, a barbed tour de force suspending readers in the mysterious literary gray space between fact and fiction, promising to keep them awake at night, and justly paranoid in the merciless morning.

Socially Broken Hidden in Plain Sight?

In this review we're going to work backwards without spoilers

The conclusion of this mystery raised my esteem for this book from 3 to 4 stars. 

It's one of those books where you finish reading, you sit and think, and then want to immediately re-read the whole thing to make sense of the final revelation. 

Here's how my review initially began...

The Reckoning: 

Statement of Indebtedness  (?)

I can't quite explain why I'm having a hard time with this book. I know sometimes things are lost in translation, but I also think I have a hard time with irredeemable characters who have a great penchant for introspection.

The book begins promisingly with a mysterious first-person narrator seemingly stalking an old "hack" of a writer and his innocent wife and small daughter. The reader is definitely pulled in by the anger of this anonymous character, and his potential plan for a bloody and absolute revenge.

There's a bit of a stall as the reader is then introduced to the author, Mr. M., and his bland existence. Eventually some layers are pulled back and it's discovered there's more to this "cookie-cutter" author. But then WHISK! We're pulled back into the past from a different character's uncomfortably narcissistic perspective. 

I normally LOVE multiple point-of-view mysteries, but not when I don't LIKE any of the characters!!

I wouldn't call Dear Mr. M a mainstream mystery, but rather verbose "literature" beginning with a mysterious element and then torturing the reader with tautologous character exposition. Yep. Tautologous.

... After finishing the novel, I at first thought that maybe I had been playing a crazy game of "Psychopath Whack-A-Mole." But then I realized that all of these deeply flawed characters were just that: DEEPLY flawed. I recently read a book that said we are all somebody else's monster** and I'm wondering how ANY of us would look from Koch's brutally honest (?) vantage point.

Basically I was initially annoyed that I felt like a Grade 12 English teacher was going to make me write a paper on this novel:
What character foil was the minor character of Miriam meant to be to Herman? Why did the author (Herman Koch) name one of the main characters "Herman?" Which characters escaped Koch's seemingly wrathful view of humanity? Why?
But after finishing the book I found myself asking: WHAT WAS the purpose of Miriam? Why didn't Koch tell us what happened to _________? or __________? Stop making me INFER and THINK!!

While sometimes a hard read, in the end Koch has you drawing your own conclusions despite yourself. And are still thinking about it at 5am when you should be sleeping.

Well done, Mr. Koch. You got me.

~ Spinning Jenny

P.S. This would be an awesome book club pick... if I shared all my notes, this review would be 10 years long...
I was given this book by Netgalley for an honest review.

About the Author (via goodreads.com):

Herman Koch (1953) is known as a television producer and a writer. The book 'Het diner', published in 2009, was his breakthrough in the Netherlands. It was published in 17 countries. It was partly based on a true story involving a homeless woman named, María del Rosario Endrinal Petit, in Barcelona (Spain), in December 2005.

Koch was born in Arnhem, and later moved to Amsterdam. He studied Russian for some months, and lived in Finland for a while. Nowadays he is married to the Spanish Amalia, and has a son, Pablo (1994).

* My copy of Dear Mr. M. called the book in question "Payback" which doesn't have near as many connotations as "The Reckoning" so I hope the publisher stuck with the latter!

** Paraphrasing Leigh Bardugo in her novel Six of Crows.

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