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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Dear Mr. M

Herman Koch

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To purchase Dear Mr. M

Title: Dear Mr. M
Author: Herman Koch
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 416 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: Dear Mr. M - US
Dear Mr. M - UK
Dear Mr. M - Canada
Cher monsieur M. - France
Sehr geehrter Herr M. - Deutschland
Caro signor M. - Italia
Estimado señor M. - España
  • Dutch title: Geachte heer M.
  • Translated by Sam Garrett

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Our Assessment:

B- : some decent suspense, but also tries way too hard, with limited payoff(s)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 3/9/2016 Ian Sansom
Publishers Weekly . 25/7/2016 .
TLS . 9/12/2016 Philip Womack
The Washington Post . 31/8/2016 David L. Ulin

  From the Reviews:
  • "Like all of Koch’s novels, Dear Mr M works ultimately through the deliberate withholding of information: it is a book, like all his books, with a final and magnificent twist. Whether or not readers will have the patience and interest to wait for the final twist depends rather on whether they are interested in all the little swerves and sleights along the way." - Ian Sansom, The Guardian

  • "Koch cleverly lays out the pieces of his puzzle, letting first one pattern and then another emerge, and leaving the final piece in reserve until the last few pages. His sardonic sense of humor and dark perspective on human failings give the novel a greater, more satisfying depth than the usual thriller." - Publishers Weekly

  • "There is a twist, but a twist should be the logical extension of the mechanisms inherent to the plot: the final reveal here ignores all such concerns, tipping into absurdity, before ending with a bleak and unfulfilling vision of death." - Philip Womack, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Dear Mr. M is, most essentially, about how stories build upon themselves, each event influenced, triggered even, by the last. That puts a burden on Koch to invent, continually, new turns. If this doesn’t always work as he intends, for the most part he pulls it off." - David L. Ulin, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Dear Mr. M begins ominously enough, a neighbor writing to a fairly famous (if now on the verge of being over the hill) author, Mr. M. He promises: "Yes, I have certain plans for you, Mr. M". The neighbor is obviously somewhat obsessed with M -- for what turns out to be a pretty good reason: it soon becomes clear that M appropriated a sensational story in which the neighbor and his then-girlfriend were involved when they were in high school. Among the amusing twists is that for the writer -- who later makes quite a big deal about how closely he observes everyone around him, and how keenly he is aware of their appearances (and physical flaws) -- the neighbor remains more or less oblivious: M almost always fails to recognize him, despite the fact they live in the same building and occasionally cross paths, and that the writer built his career on this man's story.
       "In high school, something happened that changed the rest of my life," the neighbor writes, and he clearly hasn't gotten over that. M's (mis)appropriation of those events, and him, makes an easy, fat target to blame. "I'm not a character. I'm real", he reminds M -- and with the offending book titled Payback the scene is quite nicely set for ... a payback for Payback.
       From this fairly promising premise, Koch makes ... a rather convoluted mess. It begins with the annoyance of the unrevealed names, the neighbor coyly hiding his identity, or M's full name, or even that of M's three-year-old daughter; there's no good reason for this -- and most of the names are revealed soon enough. Such games might work if followed through, beginning to end, but for much of the novel Koch takes the story out of the neighbor's hands: different sections of the book are narrated from different perspectives -- which, among other things, rather defeats the silly name-games. Telling the story -- or stories -- from different perspectives has some appeal, including when scenes are considered twice, but in the way it moves between past and present, and in the stories it focuses on, Koch too often threatens to lose the plot, or track of it. (This, too, is vaguely appropriate, given the crime at the heart of it, but it doesn't make for great reading.)
       In a sense, Dear Mr. M is a setting straight of the record. As the neighbor notes about Payback:

     Two high school students mastermind their teacher's perfect murder. That's the first line of text on the back cover.
     Two factual inaccuracies, in the very first sentence. Because we never masterminded anything -- and it was anything but perfect.
       Much of the novel is set in those high school days, with which M has nothing to do. A group of friends get together, hang out, hook up. They have some issues with their parents, and with each other. A young teacher takes advantage of one of his students, and then becomes obsessed with her when she dumps him. And eventually the teacher disappears, under circumstances that suggest exactly who was behind that -- though no body is ever found, and nothing proved.
       Koch has some nice twists to the story, and there's culpability enough to go around, but what could have been a lean, exciting thriller is a baggy mess. His in-depth focus on the group of teens and their interactions is impressive, on some level, but also extends (much) further than necessary; chopped up -- the story isn't told straight through -- it also loses some of its force. Other bits and pieces also have some appeal, on their own -- Mr. M's concern about his career; his relationship with his much younger second wife -- while others, though potentially interesting, seem, in the form they are presented in, almost entirely underutilized, or even gratuitous, including an interview Mr. M agrees to, as well as his father's ignoble acts during World War II, or some of the high schoolers' filmed pranks.
       Much of the writing here is good, and Koch can tell a good story -- but he has trouble putting one together. There's too much back- and side-story here, and with all of the tangential chunks thrown in along the way the final twist barely stands out -- a shame, because it is a decent one, which he could have done more with. (Presumably it is meant to 'explain' a lot about Mr. M, retrospectively -- but given how much else Koch has stuffed into the novel, it doesn't work nearly as well as it should in that respect.)
       Dear Mr. M is reasonably good, section by section, and chapter by chapter -- but it doesn't fit together into nearly enough.

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 August 2016

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Dear Mr. M: Reviews: Herman Koch: Other books by Herman Koch under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Dutch literature

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About the Author:

       Dutch author Herman Koch was born in 1953.

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© 2016-2021 the complete review

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