Showing posts with label unreliable narrators. Show all posts
Showing posts with label unreliable narrators. Show all posts

26 January 2019

Not another Freaking Neurotic Narrator (and other books....)

by Melodie Campbell (reaches for the gun in her stocking, and yes that is me and a Derringer)

I'm tired of downer books.  I don't want to be depressed after reading for three hours.  Bear with me: I'll explain.

The problem is, most of the downer elements of grim books involve women who are victims.  Either victims of crime, or victims of a patriarchal society.  Scandinavian Noir is full of the first.  In fact, most noir novels involve a female who is murdered and often hideously mutilated.  That's so much fun for women to read.

So here goes:

I don't want to read any more books about women who are abused or downtrodden.  I know there are several good books out there right now featuring such women.  Some are historical.  Some are current day.  It's not that they aren't good.  It's just that I don't want to read any more of them.  I've read plenty.

Imagine, men, if most of the books you had read involved men who had been victimized or relegated to second class status by another gender.  One or a few might be interesting to read.  But a steady diet of these?  Would you not find it depressing?  Not to mention, discouraging?

I don't want to read any more books about neurotic women, or women who can't get it together.  I dread more 'unreliable narrators.'  Particularly, I don't want to read a book ALL THE WAY THROUGH, and then find out at the very end that the protagonist has been lying to me.  (Are you listening, Kate Atkinson? *throws book across room*)  Who wants to be tricked by the author?  But there's something even worse about it:

Did you notice that most (okay, every single one I can think of) unreliable narrators on the bestseller lists recently are women?  Does that say something to you about how society views women? (reaches for gun in stocking...)  It does to me.  No more 'girl' books. (BLAM!...that felt good.)

I don't want to read any more books this year with female protagonists that are written by men.  Yes, this means some of the bestselling crime novels out there.  They may be very well written.  But these rarely sound like women's stories to me.  They aren't written with the same lens.

What I want:  books with intelligent female protagonists written by women.  I want more women's stories.  Books I can be proud to hand on to my daughters, and say, see what is possible?  She isn't a victim!  She's someone like you.

Trouble is, I can't FIND many books like that.  The bestseller lists today are filled with protagonists who are unstable, neurotic women.  Let me be clear:  a lot of people enjoy these books.  They may be very well written.  They wouldn't be on bestseller lists otherwise.

But I'm tired of them.  I want a ripping good story with a female protagonist, written by a woman.  Hell, I want to *be* the protagonist for a few hours.

And not come away feeling downtrodden.

Speaking of which...if you're looking for a female protagonist with wit and brains, this mob goddaughter rocks the crime scene in a very different way:
The Goddaughter Does Vegas - out this week from Orca Book Publishers!  
Book 6 in the multi-award winning caper series.
 On AMAZON

04 April 2018

Who Do You Trust?


by Robert Lopresti

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?

29 January 2018

Would I Lie To You?

by Steve Liskow

If a story uses a first person narrator, the most important action in that story is the telling. The narrator arranges the people and events in a way that serves his purpose. Since he has a stake in the story, sometimes he cheats. That's where the fun begins.




Many of the classics gain their power from the irony of a dissembling story-teller. Lockwood, the secondary narrator of Wuthering Heights, is too conceited to understand that Nelly Dean passes the buck in her tale of Heathcliff and Catherine's star-crossed love. Through negligence or prejudice, she causes every tragedy in the book and blames Heathcliff, whom she admits she loathed at first sight.

Dickens's Great Expectations thrives because Pip believes that Miss Haversham is polishing him to be worthy of Estella. By the time he understands that Magwitch is his real benefactor, he also realizes that Estella is a miserable woman who would be a horrible match for him.

Critics have argued about Henry James's The Turn of the Screw since its serialization in 1898, and James did little to settle the argument, calling his story merely a "pot-boiler to catch the unwary." His prologue (He almost never used a prologue) shows us a series of narrators who are either biased, lazy, or irresponsible, and the story seems to be an exercise in covering everyone's tush. Is it a ghost story, or did the governess hallucinate the shades of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint? The visions first appear when she daydreams about the handsome master who hired her under strange circumstances, so I tend to side with the Freudians even if they do get heavy-handed. I used to love assigning this story in my honors American Lit classes, especially those who had read Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream the previous year and picked up on the allusion to Peter Quince, the rude mechanical who wrote the hilarious play they perform at the end. Musician Quince Peters, who appears in my two novellas with Woody Guthrie, comes from the same source.

The danger of using irony is that readers may not understand. Contrary to increasingly popular mis-reading, Huckleberry Finn is NOT a racist novel (for that, I suggest Uncle Tom's Cabin, which portrays the black characters as docile and stupid, more like Labrador retrievers than people). Huck has been raised by a white-trash drunk and he repeats what he's heard about black people all his life. At the same time, he shows us that Pap, Tom, Boggs, Sherburn, the Grangerfords, the Shepherdsons, and the King & the Duke are lazy, greedy, stupid, violent, dishonest, or most of the above. Jim, on the other hand, is brave, loving, loyal, honest, and patient.

Never trust what someone tells you if he shows you something else.

If you write mysteries, the unreliable narrator should be near the top of your bag of tricks. Agatha Christie showed how far you can take this idea in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926). You don't have to go as far as Dame Agatha, but since people lie in mysteries, why deprive the narrator of so much fun?

Remember, you have to let the reader understand that something is rotten in the State of Denmark. A careless reader won't catch on (so much the better), but if you play fair and suggest along the way that narrator X spins more than bottles, you have lots of possibilities.

So, how do you play fair?

One way involves having the narrator say right up front that he prevaricates. In Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Chief Bromden is a paranoid schizophrenic in a mental hospital. He ends the first chapter by telling us, "It's the truth, even if it didn't really happen."

How much clearer can you get?

Holden Caulfield is a direct literary descendant of Huck Fin and a close relation to Chief Bromden. It still surprises me how many readers of Catcher in the Rye miss that Holden delivers his narration to a therapist after he's had a nervous breakdown.

Mary Katherine Blackwood, the narrator of Shirley Jackson's underappreciated We Have Always Lived in the Castle, is almost as crazy as Chief Bromden, but not as straightforward. "Merricat" tells us on page one that she's often thought she should have been a werewolf and that she likes Richard Plantagenet and the death's-head mushroom. We see her obsessive rituals to ward off "trouble," too. She lives with her sister Constance and her uncle Julian; the rest of the family died from eating sugar laced with arsenic on their strawberries. The small town shuns the family because they believe Constance evaded prison because of insufficient evidence. It's nearly the end of the book when those townsfolk trash the sisters' home and Merricat snarls, "I will put death in their food and watch them die." Constance says, "The way you did before?" and Merricat answers, "Yes."

She hasn't lied to us before about who poisoned the sugar. The subject simply hasn't come up in conversation. By the time it does, we've had ample opportunity to see that Mary Katherine Blackwood has more issues than the archives of the New York Times.

Gillian Flynn is equally clear in Gone Girl. Early in the book, Nick Dunne starts counting the lies he tells other people. This implies that he lies to us, too. Sure enough, when the police and Amy's parents call him out on various inconsistencies, he admits the truth...eventually. What makes the book so powerful is that Amy, the missing wife, lies even more than Nick...and even more skillfully.

Sometimes, the narrator shows you subterfuge without actually saying he lies. Chuck Palahniuk gives us a huge disconnect two page into Invisible Monsters. The macabre tableau involves Edie Cottrell's wedding reception--and Brandy Alexander bleeding out at the bottom of the stairs from a shotgun blast. Palahniuk's scene is horrific because it's so specific. Then the narrator shows her true colors: "It's not that I'm some detached lab animal just conditioned to ignore violence, but my first instinct is maybe it's not too late to dab club soda on the blood stain."

He's even clearer in Fight Club. 200 words into the story, he says, "I know this because Tyler knows this." Think about it. He repeats the comment throughout the book, too. That's fair.

Some narrators don't deliberately lie, but their background cause a bias that clouds their vision. I've mentioned Huck Finn, but think also of Nick Carraway, narrator of The Great Gatsby. Nick tells us his family is wealthy. His unconscious bias against the poor explains his letting Gatsby take the blame even though they both know Daisy drove the car that killed Myrtle Wilson. It's worth pointing out that Nick, who tells us he's the most honest person he knows, has two affairs during the book and came east to avoid marrying the woman he seduced back home.

Never trust what a character tells you if he shows you something else, remember?

In The Perfect Ghost, Linda Barnes shows us apparently agoraphobic Emily Moore, who mourns the death of her writing partner, killed in what might not have been an accident. At the same time, she starts sleeping with the famous director she and her partner were interviewing so they could write his biography. It may not be dishonest or unethical exactly, but it's poor enough judgment to make us examine the rest of her story more carefully.

Barnes, Flynn and Fitzgerald all use flashbacks, which delay the revelations because an altered chronology puts more pages between the contradictory details so readers are less likely to notice them. I generally avoid flashbacks, but nothing is off-limits if you do it really well. All three of these writers do it really well.

Another way to justify an unreliable narrator is to make him dumb or naive. Ring Lardner's short story "Haircut" (1926) features a barber telling a stranger about the events in a small Midwestern town. The story lasts as long as the customer's haircut, but Whitey the barber is too thick to understand how the people and events he describes fit together. By the end of his story, we understand that a murder has been committed. We know who did it, how, why, and that he will get away with it, too. Great stuff. And the unreliable narrator is the only way to make the story work.

Lardner's tale inspired my own story "Little Things." The two main characters are a bright eight-year-old boy and a shy six-year-old girl who meet when their respective single parents bring them to a miniature golf course. Amy lacks the wider knowledge to know that her experiences are not "normal," and Brian is too young to grasp the significance of what she tells him. Amy's mother and Brian's father are wrapped up in each other and don't even hear the little girl's revelations.

Everybody lies. But first person narrators do it better.

Trust me.


28 December 2016

Laura Lippman's WILDE LAKE

David Edgerley Gates


I caught up with Wilde Lake only last month, I blush to admit, since it came out in early May. This is Laura Lippman's 21st novel, and she absolutely crushes it, hits it over the lights and out of the park.


I wouldn't call it a mystery, exactly, although crimes happen in the course of the story, and buried secrets are revealed. It seems to me to be more about the nature of families, and friendships, the elastic quality of time, and what some of us might call accident, some Fate.


Lippman uses a cool device in this book. She flips back and forth between first and third person, with her heroine Lu telling her own story in the past, as a kid, but the present being third-person narrative. Both observed and observing, in other words, and Lu the observer - speaking as her younger self - isn't entirely reliable. This creates a troubling tension, Lu's father and older brother (the mom absent, having died of complications not long after Lu's birth) are seen through different lenses, or at different removes. Their dad is a seeming constant, but even he begins to shift, and the family's received wisdom with him, which gets Lu increasingly uneasy. What she thought was solid ground is instead very thin ice. The reader, trusting both voices, hears an undercurrent, a bass note.


It's hard to know which voice carries the melody and which is the rhythm section. Since the reveals are in the present day, you take that voice for true. But the kid telling the stories, later to be undeceived, has the advantage of innocence, of seeing everything for the first time. Lu as a girl might recall the voice of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, another story where dramatic ironies are kept off-stage. The child can say, without irony, without self-knowledge, things that her grown-up self would filter out, or second-guess.


Wilde Lake, to a large degree, is about cruelties of omission. These are often arbitrary, but just as often they simply fade from view. All this stuff gets left out, left out of our personal histories. And it comes back. Does it ever. The truth about Lu's mom. The truth about her husband's death. The truth about her own children. Last but not least, the truth about the night her brother broke his arm - at a high school party, where one kid died and another one wound up in a wheelchair for life. Stuff it was easier to leave out, the first time around. Silence is protective, but deception always has a sell-by date.


I don't know whether to call Wilde Lake a departure, in fact, for Laura Lippman, and I get aggravated when somebody says such-and-such transcends or reinvents or deconstructs the genre, as if genre conventions were embarrassingly limited and predictable, but the book is definitely subversive. It keeps reversing itself, and your expectations. It's mischievous without being calculated. In other words, Lippman doesn't part the curtain. She keeps faith. Lu's voice never falters, she never steps aside. You don't feel manipulated. The author isn't gaslighting you. The central trick of the novel, if it's okay to call it a trick, is that you're taken into the narrator's confidence, and when her confidence fails her, you're as marooned as she is. I think this is a remarkable effect. Sleight of hand in plain sight.


Family history can often be practiced self-deception, but not necessarily self-destructive. And buried secrets don't always need to have damaging consequences. We aren't all Oedipus. Too much, though, can be hidden in the name of kindness. We'd be better off not knowing, is the most common alibi, or its second cousin, what you don't know won't hurt you. In this story, silent knowledge poisons trust. Left unspoken, it becomes a spell whose power lies in being named, and given voice. Having taken shape, there is no proof against its magic.