ON THAT YOU CAN RELY

Under the deluded notion that I might be focusing too much of my time on classic GAD detective fiction, (“Don’t you ever read any living authors?” my mom asks frequently,) I recently attempted a return to modern crime stories, only to meet with one crushing defeat after another. As a result of the latest effort, I abandoned two writers whose careers I had followed from the beginning. I tried new writers, some highly recommended by people whose tastes I trust. And I faltered, my friends . . . I faltered.

Believe me, I know that there are many fine scribes out there, and I’ll admit I’ve barely scratched the surface, what with all the wonderful resources out there offer suggestions. While most of the bloggers I follow focus their energies on the Grand Old Masters of yore, some – like author Margot Kinberg and the Puzzle Doctor – are more far-reaching in their reading interests. I don’t know anyone of my acquaintance who has a more extensive knowledge of modern crime authors than Margot, while the Doc has quite eclectic tastes, ranging from the classics (he loves him his John Rhode/Miles Burton) to historical detective fiction and even some of the modern stuff.

Some time ago, on the Doc’s recommendation, I ordered (from across the sea, mind you) Alice Feeney’s Sometimes I Lie. Based on the title alone, you’ll have already figured out that this is one of those Unreliable Narrator Thrillers that are all the rage. Even I haven’t been immune to their charms. I’ve done the biggies: Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. (The titles all tend to run together: The Girl Before meets The Woman in Cabin 10 who seems to live in the same neighborhood as The Woman Next Door who should not be mistaken for The Couple Next Door . . . although they might very well live, er, . . . next door.) Yet after struggling for a long while with Feeney’s book, I’ve come to the conclusion that the only thing these unreliable narrators can be relied on to do is drive me crazy.

 

Although the term was not created until 1961 (by Wayne Booth), the Unreliable Narrator as a literary device has existed for as long as literature itself. Truth to tell, some of my favorite literature is narrated by characters of dubious reliability, whether due to naiveté (Great Expectations, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby) or mental illness (Crime and Punishment, “The Telltale Heart,” The Catcher in the Rye). Oddly enough, it’s seldom due to outright dishonesty; still, occasionally in the realm of mystery fiction, you find a narrator who out and out lies so that the author can create a stunning twist at the end. (Fear not, friends! I offer no spoilers today.)

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In the world of the classic detective novel, authors are usually much too busy juggling the lies their characters tell to bother with a dishonest narrator. The point of old mysteries was to play fair with the reader, so somebody had to deliver the facts. Most authors didn’t even bother with first-person narratives, relying on the omniscient voice or creating a limited third-person perspective. Christie played with our perceptions brilliantly this way, causing us to mistake a character’s motivations or even their identity through well-phrased narration. Carr gave us a succession of Honest Young Men who found themselves in need of a Great Detective’s guidance. Those who wrote in the first person, like Rex Stout and, of course, Conan Doyle, related their cases through the eyes of a Watson figure, who acted as the conduit of all pertinent information the reader needs while reminding us of how brilliant (Holmes) or maddening (Nero Wolfe) the Great Detective was. The Watson is, by and large, a stand-in for the reader, although since the rule tends to be that the Watson never stumbles upon the solution (and the reader sometimes does), we then experience the pleasant sensation of feeling smarter than the narrator.

Even when GAD mystery authors accepted the challenge of utilizing an unreliable narrator, they tried to remain fair with their readers. Let’s take an example: you know the one I mean! I won’t even bother to provide the title. When that novel by that author came out in 1926, the outcry was considerable that readers had been cheated. Yet the brilliance of this author’s use of the device – and they were far from the first to use it – was the balance between the soothing, reasonable voice of the narrator and the nature of his lies. Ultimately the narrator’s true part in the story called for some big lies, but they were sins of omission rather than of fact. Since no narrator can – or even wants to – relate everything he sees, it thus becomes possible for a narrator to both lie and play fair!

Still, this is not a trick that one could – or would want to – employ with much frequency before the trick gets old. Classic mysteries told in the first person generally held to stringent honesty on the part of the narrator. When an author wanted to explore a case from the perspective of the murderer – the inverted mystery – it was the tension between the narrator/killer’s complete honesty to us and the perception this person gives to those around him that aroused our interest and generated a suspense similar to that of a traditional whodunit.

With the modern day waning of classic GAD tropes, it was inevitable that crime fiction would find new ways to present the unreliable narrator. The character who mingles fictional fact and untruths with dexterity in order to withhold some or all aspects of the mystery’s solution until the end has, for the most part, been replaced by two other kinds of storyteller: the one who simply lies and the one who, through addiction or mental illness, simply cannot fathom the truth. Admittedly, I have read a few of these that left me breathless. Shirley Jackson and Robert Bloch, for example, were masters of the device; I believe Margaret Millar played around with it quite successfully, too. Under the auspices of authors like these, the “classic mystery” gave way to the “novel of psychological suspense,” but these books still delivered the twists and surprises that lovers of classic mysteries craved. (Think Psycho and We Have Always Lived in the Castle.)

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Over the past few years, the UN-Novel has become a full-fledged mystery sub-genre, receiving its biggest boost from the publication in 2012 of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Like The Da Vinci Code, this title has become one that classic mystery lovers love to bash, and blog posts have been devoted to all the things Flynn gets wrong. In the most basic of ways, however, Gone Girl offers an alluring premise: a dream marriage goes awry, possibly leading to murder, and all told from the alternating viewpoints of husband and wife. What really happened? Who’s telling the truth? The success of this novel boils down to each reader’s relationship with what they see on the printed page. I think most of us go into a book expecting that the author will tell us the truth. To get the most out of our reading experience here, we must access what we learned writing those research papers in high school and college, weighing the reliability of primary vs. secondary documents, and so on. Flynn makes the most she can of this, and it is perhaps wise of her that she makes the big reveal not at the end but in the middle, whereby the novel transforms from a “what happened” mystery to a race to the finish.

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The other big UN-Novel that set the stage for more to come was Paula Hawkins’ 2015 best seller, The Girl on the Train. Again, we have alternating narrators, and the focus is on Rachel, whose unreliability stems from her alcoholism. But the other two narrators, Megan and Anna, are also interesting in that they, too are unreliable, but for different reasons. The trick is in putting together three disparate perspectives, all colored by personal issues, into one coherent narrative. In the end, the truth is laid bare, and we discover that, to some degree, all three women are completely different people than we assumed at the start. To make this work, however, modern authors tend to resort to a deliberate vagueness surrounding the circumstances which can frustrate the reader who’s trying to figure out what the heck is going on.

Which brings me around to Sometimes I Lie. Alice Feeney lets you know immediately that this is an UN-novel. First, there’s the title. Then the main character, Amber Reynolds, introduces a game that she plays throughout the novel:
“My name is Amber Reynolds. There are three things you should know about me:

  1. I’m in a coma.
  2. My husband doesn’t love me anymore.
  3. Sometimes I lie.”

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The novel switches between three time periods: the present day, where Amber indeed lies comatose in her hospital bed, uncomfortably aware of all that’s going on around her; the week or so leading up to the event that landed her in the hospital; and selections from a diary from when Amber was a little girl. Within that structure, Amber’s narrative contains more twists than a fresh-baked challah, but to accomplish this, Feeney has to establish a number of rules for this reality: comas make your memory sketchy, bad things happen to both good and bad people, and don’t trust anybody anytime ever ever ever!

Look, I’m fine with being given a set of facts that cause me to draw my own conclusions, only to learn that I may have jumped the gun. These are traps a good writer loves to spring. Not all of them are created equal. Agatha Christie does a wonderful job in Toward Zero messing with our minds over who the intended victim actually is. Less successful is the central trick of Lord Edgware Dies, which hinges on allowing oneself to be led by the nose down one path without ever considering the opposite possibility. Meh! Ultimately, though, in both novels, the truth will out and everything is made clear. Christie doesn’t have to resort to vagueness to tell her story. Everyone has a part to play. Some are honest, and some are not. And not all the liars are murderers.

Amber Reynolds talks like this a lot:

“Whatever I’m lying on lifts me up and backwards, head first again, swallowing me inside myself. The quiet is silenced by a piercing noise, like a muffled robotic scream. I don’t know what’s happening. Whatever it is, I want it to end . . . The mechanical screams have rendered themselves into the sound of a baby crying and it’s so much worse. I feel wet and realize I have pissed myself. There was no bag attached to collect my liquid shame, the smell smothers me and I switch myself off.”

This passage occurs on Page 204, and by then I was in a frenzy of impatience for Feeney to just get on with it. By the time the twists start coming, it’s all a matter of “got this,” “didn’t see that coming” and “what the – huh?!?” Feeney presents so many contradictory facets of Amber’s character, her past and her present life for so long that, by the time we start to sort things out to the truth, it becomes hard to care about a woman we may have never really met. Some of the twists are clever surprises, some come out of left field (and this happens far too late in the game, and without any foundation, for my taste), and others are pretty guessable based on the structure of the prose.

In a way, I guess the modern authors of this sub-genre are playing the same game that classic mystery authors were accused of and put down for: they are constructing a puzzle box instead of a novel, one that has a dangerous tendency to either peter out (which I think happens in The Girl on the Train) or implode on its own cleverness, which happens here. When revelations become fake-outs, and characters reverse over and over again, it becomes as hard to care as it is to keep track of what’s going on. Gone Girl was at least cleverly written. Here I struggled with the prose itself, never mind the convoluted plot. I freely admit that, at the halfway point, my careful read became more of a skim . . . which probably made the experience worse.

I will not close my mind to modern mysteries. I’ll keep following Margot and the Doc and others to see if something strikes my fancy. Meanwhile, inspired by Sergio over at Tipping the Fedora, I’ve headed back to safer ground. With Carter Dickson’s He Wouldn’t Kill Patience at my bedside, I can breathe a sigh of relief.

At least, for now.

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15 thoughts on “ON THAT YOU CAN RELY

  1. I could almost…and might still…write the opposite of this post. I’ve tried so many “classic” authors and liked so few of them. But even though I prefer the modern stuff neither Gone Girl nor Girl on the Train did anything for me. Patricia Highsmith did “domestic noir” much earlier and much better.

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    1. And you should write that rebuttal – although we still probably agree more than not. Flynn and Hawkins invented nothing new; other writers, mostly women, did domestic noir much earlier and much better. I’m just sorry you haven’t found a classic author to truly enjoy, Bernadette.

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  2. Thanks, Brad, for the kind words. And I give you credit for trying to extend your reading, even if you feel more comfortable on safer ground. As for the unreliable narrator? It can be very, very effective, but it’s got to be done carefully. Otherwise it fails.

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    1. I think the problems begin – and I don’t mean to sound cute here – when the author tries to rely on the unreliable narrator for everything and doesn’t pay enough attention to creating a gripping plot. I love a good twist as much as the next guy, but I need more than that!

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  3. I haven’t read Gone Girl On The Train Next Door, or indeed heard of half of them, and I don’t think there is any implied issue in not much wanting to read things written after my birth, which is my habit. It struck me, though, that what you are so very perceptively describing is a literary mini-movement that is very much like the film career of M. Night Shyamalan. One wonderful tricky and satisfying piece at the very outset, and then a lot of trying to recapture that level of flipping the narrative and not managing to bring it off as satisfyingly.
    There are also crime fiction works where the first-person narrator is unreliable, but in such a way that the reader is meant to see that the narrator is fooling him/herself about something. In other words, we are told what the narrator wishes us to believe is true, but in such a way that we can see what’s really going on. I find those books very enjoyable but few and far between. I think Malice Aforethought might qualify — and a favourite book of mine, King and Joker by Peter Dickinson.

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    1. Isn’t Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock something like that, too? I love when a really great author can layer our perceptions like that. The Great Gatsby remains one of my favorite novels for showing the difference of how people perceive themselves (or fool themselves) vs. how they really are.

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  4. Part of the trouble is that if you have read a huge number of crime stories, and you hear that this new one has a killer twist – well all the time you’re reading, you’re contemplating what it might be. And the chances are it will be something that you COULD think of, you COULD guess.

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    1. Far be it from me from calling myself an “expert,” but I totally agree with you. Those of us who read a LOT of mysteries are at a distinct disadvantage when an author sets out to invent a new surprise. I think this is part of why mysteries “evolved” after the Golden Age. We all crave a new experience, and when one element has been sort of played out, it helps to broaden your list of elements!

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  5. Don’t give up on modern mysteries! There are some jewels hidden, it might just take more effort to find one that is really good. If you have some interest in historical mysteries, I recommend Anne Perry who writes two current running series: Thomas & Charlotte Pitt and the other called the William Monk series. The first book in the former series is called “The Cater Street Hangman” and it’s really good. It may not be an astounding whodunit from the likes of Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr but the book keeps its tension the main character looks suspiciously from one person to another inside the confines of her family and outside and wonders who the hangman is.

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  6. Unreliable narration, when it’s done well, is a beautiful thing. One of my favourite Bronte’s is ‘Villette’ which can sometimes give you the feeling of watching something through a shard of mirror, in which you know there’s a crack, but you can’t always spot where it is.
    I think that the most recent example that I’ve read has been L.C. Tyler’s ‘A very Persistent Illusion’, which was a more wrenching book than I’d expected, going in. I also loved ‘Asta’s book’ by Ruth Rendell (and ‘that’ novel by ‘that’ author remains one of my favourites, partly now for the joy of spotting the omissions and partly for the humour).

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    1. I think Villette sat on my shelf unread for years and then was lost! I haven’t given the Brontes their due; I was obsessed with Dickens and Austen, both of whom mastered the art of irony in their storytelling and trained me to read between the lines! 🙂

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  7. Austen was a revelation to me, my English lessons having previously instilled the idea that ‘classic’ was a synonym for sleeping pill. And then I read Sense and Sensibility and the opening few chapters – with John Dashwood gradually allowing himself to be persuaded to reduce his financial obligation to his mother and sisters from three thousand pounds to a sporadic offering of fish – hooked me for life. And then Henry Fielding and Dickens, George Eliot, the Brontes, Thackeray: and a whole new world opened.

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