Herman Koch’s Dear Mr. M has all the trappings of a stylish literary thriller endowed with the author’s trademark black humour and wit. And it comes so close to being something truly resonant; inches away from being one of the year’s must-read books. Alas, its sagging middle undermines a brilliant start, and lessens the impact of its climax. With a finer edit – some slicing and dicing – Dear Mr. M would be truly spectacular. In its published form, however, it has to settle for merely being ‘good.’
Koch’s latest tells the story of a fading writer; once celebrated, but now long past the apex of his career, which was the publication of Payback, a suspense novel based on a real-life disappearance. It told the story of a history teacher who vanished one winter after a brief affair with a student. His body was never found. M.’s novel distorted the facts of the case, and the premise of Dear Mr M. centres around the author being held accountable for his altering of events.
The novel has an interesting structure, told from various perspectives, the most captivating of which is undoubtedly a letter to M., written by the same person the author accused of murdering the history teacher in Payback. There’s a real tension here; these segments are utterly suspenseful and creepy, which inevitably make other sections of the novel feel sluggish.
Koch rips into the literary world in Dear Mr M., poking fun at publisher dinners, promotional tours, author relationships, etc. As someone working in the industry, I found some of his comments, through his characters, especially hilarious. The novel really shines in these moments, and echoes the dark humour present in Koch’s other work; The Dinner and Summer House With Swimming Pool.
Despite its middle dragging on a bit, Dear Mr M. is a mostly gripping, brilliantly satirical literary thriller. It’s a novel I highly recommend . . . with a small caveat.