Dutch author "Mr. M" is an older man, well past his writing prime, with a beautiful young wife and a little daughter. Mr. M's most popular book, based on a real life occurrence, is called "Payback." Published four decades ago, "Payback" tells the story of two high school students accused of killing their history teacher.
The teacher, Mr. Landzaat - a married man with two daughters - had an affair with a pretty student named Laura. When Laura dumped Landzaat to hook up with a fellow high-schooler named Herman, the teacher went a little crazy. He took to stalking Laura, even going so far as to 'drop in' (and stay over) when Herman and Laura were vacationing in her family's cabin. During this 'visit' Landzaat disappeared.
In the here and now Mr. M is being surveilled by his very creepy downstairs neighbor. The neighbor - a middle-aged man - observes Mr. M, checks the writer's mail, and 'accidently' runs into Mrs. M when she takes a short trip with her child. Eventually the neighbor inveigles himself into a mild friendship with Mr. M, and - when Mrs. M opts out - even accompanies the author to a writer's gala. Seating at the gala's entertainment reflects an author's importance in the artistic community.....and less successful (or past their peak) writers get stuck in the back row or behind pillars. Mr. M, whose fading popularity and waning sales weigh on his mind, resents his more successful friends and colleagues.
The story moves back and forth between the present time and the high school days of Laura, Herman, and their friends. The students were an independent bunch who sometimes arranged 'teenager only' holidays at Laura's family cabin. Herman - who's described as skinny with crooked teeth and unfashionable clothes - exhibits a lot of snarky manipulative behavior at school and at the cabin - and is especially disrepectful (and even hateful) to teachers. It's hard to see what Laura sees in Herman (not that Mr. Landzaat, with his 'long teeth', is any prize either).
In current times, during conversations between the downstairs neighbor and Mr. M, it's clear the snoopy acquaintance resents Mr. M's writing a book about what happened among Laura, Herman, and Mr. Landzaat. It seems that - for some reason - the neighbor is very interested in these old-time events.
The major characters in the book are intriguing but not particularly likable. Herman, Mr. M, and Mr. Landzaat are flat out noxious; and Laura, while less unpleasant, wouldn't make a good BFF. The minor characters - including Mr. M's writer colleagues, various high school students, a wily journalist, Mrs. M, and several teachers - add color and interest to the story.
The book seems to be about the ethics of exploiting other people's lives for a book as well as how far an author would go to fulfill his/her vision.
Some parts of the book were a bit slow but it held my interest throughout. I speculated a lot about the 'real identity' of some of the characters and had various theories about what happened to Mr. Landzaat. I was right about some things and wrong about others.
I'd recommend the book to readers who enjoy literary fiction, particularly fans of Herman Koch.