20 July 2023

The Mystic Chords of (Literary) Memory

Guy Pearce having a completely unmemorable day
 Two things straight from the jump:

First, I have been blessed from birth with an excellent memory.

Second, as a rule, I dislike, unreliable narrators.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that unreliable narrators have their place in literature in film and in art. Look no further than Guy Pearce’s character in Christopher Nolan’s superb Memento. 

That said, it is easy to get the unreliable narrator wrong. No examples of that here, because the point of this piece is not to call out other writers.

Instead, I’m gonna talk about how unreliable memory can be from personal experience, discuss my attempts to document, same, and end with a few recommendations of work by authors, who do seem to get the unreliable, or “memory-challenged” narrator right.

First off, my own experience with memory.

I'm a trained historian. Names and dates are my jam, as are long, detailed event sequences. More than that, I have a sharp memory for sound, especially conversation. If I hear it, I can usually recall it very clearly.

I'm also fifty-eight years old, had COVID fog that took forever to shake not too long ago (a couple of years ago), and am finding myself reaching for words in ways I never really experienced before the past couple of years. On top of that, I have at least three family members in recent generations who suffered from dementia in their golden years. Two of them had scar tissue from brain surgery and the third had other potential outside causes for their dementia. Still makes me wonder and makes me nervous, usually at the same time.

Having a close-up view of family members losing their memories is as good a reason as any for my personal distaste for unreliable narrators with memory problems. Sort of a "there but for the grace of God go I" sort of thing, I guess.

But there's also the fact that the unreliable narrator can be misused to bail a lesser-skilled author out of the requirement that they "play fair with the reader." Again, no names, but I have also read many examples of just this sort of lazy writing.

And even when it's effectively rendered, it can still come across as manipulative in the extreme. Don't get me wrong. I am all for moving the reader. That is the writer's job. "Moving" a reader and "manipulating" them are hardly the same thing. I am aware there might be those who may disagree with this conclusion. I invite them to write their own blog post and expound upon their point of view there (or drop a friendly disagreement into the comment section below!).

Which is not to say that I don't recognize a successful attempt to pull off the unreliable narrator when it's done well. (Again, see Memnto above). In addition to Nolan's movie, I've got three pretty well-done examples for those who might interested in exploring this sort of subgenre of the mystery/thriller world. Two of them I've read myself, one highly recommended by the mighty Jim Thomsen, editor extraordinaire, and his recommendation is good enough for me.

So here they are: one well-known, the other critically acclaimed, and the third, as I said above, new to me:

1. Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane 

I'm pretty sure that once I brought up the notion of an "unreliable narrator," many of you immediately thought of this best-selling novel from a best-selling author, and the successful movie it spawned, starring the highly skilled Leonardo DiCaprio. I don't want to say too much for those of you who haven't read it, but suffice to say that I found this a terrific and inventive use of the unreliable narrator (who I really liked.).

Oh, and if you want to see what happens when Christopher Nolan and Leonardo DiCaprio team up to play around with memory, I highly recommend the wonderful Inception.

2. In the Woods by Tana French 

This one won a ton of well-deserved awards (The Edgar, Barry, Macavity and the Anthony, all for Best First Novel) when it was published in 2008. From the outset, French plays fair with the reader. On the very first page she sums up the point of view of the narrator, Dublin police detective Rob Ryan thusly: 

"What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this—two thing: I crave truth. And I lie."

What follows is a dizzying descent into hell in one of the best psychological novels ever published. Powerful, well-executed, and utterly believable.

And while I admire the work and how French pulled it all off, I can't honestly say that I liked the novel. I sure didn't like the narrator (I hesitate to call him the "protagonist," for reasons I won't go into because I do not want to spoil the story for those who have not read it). I also wouldn't say I enjoyed reading the book. I felt moved and I felt it affected me. For some people that's enough. 

But saying that the book "stuck with you" is not the same thing as saying you liked the book/enjoyed reading it. And all I can admit is that it stuck with me.

3. Oblivion by Peter Abrahams 

This is the book Jim Thomsen recommended, and not having read it, I can't say much about it except that the memory component of it kicks in when the POV character (private investigator Nick Petrov) suffers a brain hemorrhage arising from a tumor. Shenanigans ensue. If Jim says it's good, that's enough for me. It's going on my TBR list and I'll likely report back once I've finished it.

And on that note, it's time to wrap things up here. Thanks for reading, let us know what you think in the comments, and if you have recommendations/reactions to the opinions I've staked out above, would love to see that sort of thing in the comments as well.

Hope you're enjoying your summer, and as always....

See you in two weeks!


  1. Great piece, Brian. I've wanted to read the first two for a while now, but now I have a third, so thanks.

    1. Let me know what you think, Joseph!

  2. This is interesting, Brian. I don't like unreliable narrators because I want to like the protagonist, and fit myself into their skin. If they fool me, I feel like I've been betrayed. Your memory angle is a new one for me to think about.

    1. Brian Thornton20 July, 2023 22:44

      Obviously we agree on that front, Melodie!

  3. Oops! That was Melodie above :)

  4. Elizabeth Dearborn20 July, 2023 12:28

    I am also plagued with a really good memory. The husband is not, but believes that he is. As you may imagine, I lose every fight because he is an old trumpet player & can holler louder than I can.

  5. I'm actually tired of unreliable narrators, because I really feel they've been overused. Alcoholics, drug addicts, Alzheimer's - too many of them in the last few years. And my least favorite Agatha Christie is "Curtain." I did enjoy Memento.

    1. CURTAIN was certainly contrived. That's par for the course with Agatha Christie, who did forge new ground when it came to pots and point of view (thinking especially of THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD and AND THEN THERE WERE NONE). Paper-thin character, labyrinthine plots.

  6. Brian, in my 1660s Paris Underworld series in AHMM, my unreliable narrator is a young, orphan pickpocket living in a conclave of scheming adult criminals. As such, he is naïve about some of the events he witnesses and therefore tells the story from his Point of View as if it were a real happening. If I do my job correctly, then the reader soon knows the true meaning of events and gets to feel superior in their knowledge.

    One example is when the orphan is spying on a character and believes that a con man can change silver into gold by means of alchemy. Of course, the orphan has misread what really happened, but that misreading drives the action and reaction in “The Alchemist.”

  7. Mystery authors lie to their audiences all the time, misleading and omitting or obscuring critical details. How fairly they do it colors how we judge.

    As you point out, mental illness can provide a legitimate framework for an unreliable narrator. One top example was Hitchcock's Psycho. I've mentioned novels that have afflicted the narrator with Alzheimer's disease. I used Alzheimer's as a focal point for my MWA story Quality of Mercy. I wanted the reader to taste confusion when the world tilts and what they thought they knew wasn't close. By the end of the tale, the protagonist is the victim and the victim is the killer, and at least three different scenarios were possible. And yet a reviewer said it's really a love story.

    Another legitimate factor can be a character's world view. Romance writers have a lock on characters who hate men, all men, the bastards, but then fall in love with the worst of the lot who, it turns out, founded a United Nations crisis orphanage and anonymously donated his bone marrow to save the MC's child.

    We see world views affecting people in real life, refusing life-saving vaccinations and believing the other political party is evil. The story Untenable centered around a character with familial hate, interpreting kind and generous actions by his brother as a means to manipulate him. He reported facts accurately, but his perceptions of people were way off, eventually providing a motive for murder.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>