04 April 2018

Who Do You Trust?

If you haven't charged through the March/April issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine yet, I encourage you to get off the proverbial dime and do so.  You will find many good stories including appearances by three SleuthSayers: Michael Bracken, R.T. Lawton, and your humble (oh, shut up) reporter.

It was R.T.'s story that inspired my sermon today.  (And if you missed it, you can read his own thoughts about the tale here.)

What I want to talk about is something much beloved of literary critics: the unreliable narrator.  The concept has appeared in literature for thousands of years but the phrase comes from William C. Booth in 1961.  It refers to a piece of literature with a first-person narration which the reader, for whatever reason, would be unwise to trust.

To my mind there are four varieties, all of whom can be found in mystery fiction.

The Lunatic.  This one goes all the way back to Edgar Allan Poe.  (Hint: When a character begins by insisting that he is not crazy you would be wise to doubt him.)

The Liar. Agatha Christie did the most famous version of this, infuriating many readers.  Decades later something happened that I imagine went like this:
Critics: Of course, having the narrator secretly being the murderer is a one-off stunt, and no author could use it again.
Dame Agatha: Is that so?  Hold my tea.
And to everyone's consternation, she did it again.

I mentioned this a long time ago, but: One of my favorite examples of this category was The Black Donnellys, a short-lived TV series about Irish-American criminals in New York (2007).  The framing device is Joey Ice Cream, either a hanger-on or the Donnelly brothers' best friend, depending on who is telling the story.  Joey is in prison and he is being interrogated by the cops about the Donnelly's career.  And he is a compulsive liar, happy to change his story when they catch him fibbing.  YOu can see the brilliant pilot episode here. 

The Self-Deluded.  Not crazy and not deliberately lying.  This character is just so wrapped up in himself and so devoted to defending his actions that his views can't be trusted.  Think of Jonathan Gash's Lovejoy with his endless stream of explanations for his failures and dubious decisions.  I remember one book in which  he casually mentions breaking a man's arm "practically by accident."  My private eye character Marty Crow is quite trustworthy - unless he is talking about his gambling problem.  Problem?  What problem?

The Innocent.  This narrator describes accurately what he saw, but fails to understand it.  A famous example is Ring Lardner's classic story "Haircut."  The barber describes a crime, and doesn't even realize it.

And that brings us back to R.T. Lawton's story.  "The Left Hand of Leonard" is part of his series about the criminal underground during the reign of Louis the Fourteenth.  His narrator is a young pickpocket, not very skilled and not very clever, who is sent by the king of the criminals to help steal the bones of a saint.  Things go wrong and then seem to go right and the boy can't figure out what happened.  Ah, but the reader will, just as R.T. intended.

Do you have any favorite tales with unreliable narrators? And if you say you do, should we believe you?


  1. I look forward to the new AHMM issue!

  2. Um. Unreliable narrator. Haven't done a lot of this. I'm slowly getting through the AHMM. Read JT's cool story. I'm such a slow reader.

  3. Fun post. I know that the topic of unreliable narrators always prompts a lot of strong feelings (I really enjoy them) and appreciate you talking about the different ways they can appear on the page. Nice!

  4. Rob,
    I love unreliable narrators. Someone mentioned We Have Always Lived in the Castle recently, and I think that's my favorite Shirley Jackson opus. Merricat lies and is also crazy, but it all works. Wuthering Heights (a liar's story retold by a fool) is great, and so is Great Expectations.

    Technically, you can make the case for Nick Carroway in Gatsby because he's biased against the poor. You might even say Marlowe in Heart of Darkness, but that might be pushing it. Benjy in The Sound and the Fury, and maybe the narrator whose name I don't remember in Tom Tryon's The Other?

    For contemporary works, Linda Barnes does a great job in The Perfect Ghost (I wish she'd get back to writing!) and Gillian Flynn in Gone Girl (I don't care for the book, but the techniques and prose are terrific). Ring Lardner's short stories use the technique frequently, too. My own story "Little Things" uses an innocent eight-year-old boy to tell a story he doesn't understand.

    I like your different classifications for the narrators. Very helpful...

  5. Very interesting, Rob. I've never attempted to write an unreliable narrator story. After reading this post, however, I'm thinking I might give it a try just to see if I can pull it off. I love a challenge.

  6. I love all the ones Steve named; also, Ford Madox Ford's "The Good Soldier", "Flashman", O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh".

  7. Rob, I liked the way you laid out the four types of unreliable narrators. One of these days I will have to try writing one of the other three and see how it goes. Also thanks for the shout out on the story and the e-book.

    As for stories in that issue of AHMM, the last line in your story ("Nobody Gets Killed") made the story and gave it a powerful image ending. Many authors write or blog about first lines in a story. With yours for an example, they could blog about last lines.

  8. R.T., glad you liked the last line. I would love to do apiece on great lastlines but it would be spoiler city, wouldn't it? Two fo my favorites: Hammett's "Gutting of Coughinal," and Richard Stark's last novel: Dirty Money.

    Steve, another classic is Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, narrated by Chief Bromden who is, first, schizophrenic, and two, heavily drugged.

  9. Rob,
    Yes, I think I cited Bromden in an earlier discussion. I used to tell my students (because I have an honest face so they believed me, their unreliable teacher) that Huckleberry Finn, Holden Caulfield, and Chief Bromden were different incarnations of the same narrator. Sure, it's oversimplified nonsense, but it gave them an easy handle to grasp.

    I know Eve and I have discussed "The Good Soldier" before. I read that book so long ago I never seem to think of it now.

    How about the layered narrators in James's "The Turn of the Screw?" I've always thought the prologue in which the narrator shows how fallible his memory is sets up a demonstration of how we alter or interpret facts to our advantage, in this case, the governess's shifting the blame for Miles's death from her own obsession with the master to an imaginary ghost.

    Leaping astride a writhing tangent, Peter Quint has often been cited as an allusion to Peter Quince in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and I named Quince Peters in my Black Orchid winners after him. Nobody's called me on it yet...

  10. Just re-read my post. I said JT. What an idiot. Of course I meant R. T. Lawton's "The Left Hand of Leonard." Loved it.

  11. Don't forget Robert Bloch's "Yours Truly Jack the Ripper." :)


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