Watching Question Time this week (special scheduling with Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith) I was struck, not for the first time by:
- What a charming, principled, honest man Jeremy Corbyn appears to be.
- The certainty that the British public will elect him prime minister when hell freezes over.
The last thing we want in our elected representatives is honesty. For all that we rail against the disingenuousness of MPs, we want comforting lies, not inconvenient truths – usually, a version of “all will be well, spending on public services will increase massively, the economy won’t suffer and no one’s taxes will rise.”
So it is with crime fiction, mysteries and thrillers. We don’t want the truth, or at least not until the very last chapter. We want to be teased with it, fed a few lies along the way, have the facts dangled tantalisingly out of reach.
Hence our on-going obsession with the unreliable narrator.
At the CrimeTime festival on the island of Gotland last month, there came the inevitable question about the reliability of narrators in crime writing. I drew a breath, ready to launch into a well-rehearsed explanation of why I love and use the device of the unreliable narrator so much. But no. Malin Persson Giolito had an entirely different take on the subject. She wanted to know whether there is such a thing, in fiction, as the reliable narrator.
What a good question. And one that could apply equally well to real life. Whenever we relate events, it seems to me, we bring a vanload of baggage that inevitably colours our interpretation and therefore our narration. Our mood, our relationship with our audience, their on-going reactions, how we felt about the event, how we felt about the behaviour of ourselves and others will all impact upon how we tell the story. Someone else, with exactly the same experience, might describe events quite differently. Which is correct? Both, of course, because neither of us is lying per se. On the other hand, neither of us is telling the entire truth. We are telling our own version of it. We are narrators, but not entirely reliable.
The police are well used to the unreliability of witnesses. People remember different things, place emphasis differently. They even invent and embellish memories. Conflicting witness accounts are a difficulty the police grapple with on a regular basis. They learn never to take a complaint entirely on face value.
I’m not about to suggest, because I wouldn’t dare, that victims of crime are rarely entirely blameless themselves. What I will say is that victims invariably feel a sense of guilt, a belief that on some level they contributed to their own misfortune. Victim blaming, arguably, begins with the victim himself: the car-theft victim who left his keys in the ignition, the man who was beaten up after swearing at some kids on the street. When describing the event to the police, these people have an entirely normal tendency to minimise their own role in what transpired. To lessen their own perceived guilt, people tell less than the whole story. The job of the detective is to fill in the gaps.
Even stepping away from criminality for a second, we all have secrets, things we’ll never tell another living soul. (If you don’t you probably need to get a life!)
We’ve all done things we’re ashamed of, have views that we might not feel comfortable airing in all situations. We none of us tell the whole story.
And so it goes in fiction. Story telling is a constant balancing act, between the knowledge the author has and must hold back until the time is right, and the desire of the reader to know as much as possible. And so it should be, because there is nothing like a question in the reader’s mind to get the pages turning, and turning, and turning.
My ten favourite unreliable narrators:
- Amy and Nick Dunne in Gillian Flynne’s Gone Girl
- Pi in Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi
- Huckleberry Finn in Mark Twain’s novel of the same name.
- Teddy in Denis Lehane’s Shutter Island
- “The black pawn” in Joanne Harris’s Gentlemen and Players.
- Tessa in Lisa Gardner’s Love You More
- Julia in Tess Gerritsen’s Playing With Fire.
- Mrs De Winter in Daphne Du Maurier’s
- Jenna in Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go
- And Lacey Flint in Now You See Me (of course!)
To be amongst the first to see all future posts, as well as being automatically included in all sneak previews and give-aways, sign up for my newsletter on the Book Symposium page.