Saturday, February 6, 2010

Lie to Me...

Most of us would probably say that we’re honest people. We usually tell the truth as a matter of course. There are times, though, when everyone’s tempted to lie, and many people do so. A lot of those lies are what are often called, “white lies.” They’re not told out of malice; in fact, sometimes, the motive is quite the opposite. For example, “I’d love to, but this week is really busy,” is a lot kinder than, “I don’t want to have lunch with you.” Another kind of lie is the lie we tell to “cover” ourselves. Again, this kind of lie isn’t malicious; it’s told to save embarrassment. “I lost your address,” is a lot less embarrassing than, “I completely forgot your birthday, so I didn’t send a card or present.” There are, of course, also lies that are less innocent. Those are told to damage someone else’s reputation, to make someone else a suspect in a crime, to create an alibi or to cover up one’s own involvement in a crime. In mystery novels, those are the most interesting lies. The sleuth and the reader have to sort through the tissues of lies that suspects tell to get to the truth.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has often said that in murder cases, everyone has something to hide. He’s well aware that people tell lies, and he realizes that the challenge is to separate the lies having to do with side issues from the lies having to do with the murder at hand. For example, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Poirot investigates the stabbing death of a retired business tycoon. Since he has a large fortune to leave, all of the members of his household come in for a share of suspicion. As Poirot delves into the case, he finds out that just about everyone connected with the case is lying about something. For instance, one character lies about seeing Ackroyd just before the time he’s supposed to have died. That lie is told to cover up another, far more minor “crime.” Another character lies about being near the Ackroyd home on the night of the murder. That lie is told as a self-protective measure. And then, of course, there are the lies that the murderer tells.

Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse frequently has to untangle complicated webs of lies, some of which are related to the case at hand, and some of which aren’t. In The Jewel That Was Ours, for instance, Morse and Lewis investigate the theft of the Wovercote Tongue, part of a famous Saxon-era belt buckle that’s on display at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. American tourist Laura Stratton and her husband, who are with a tour group visiting England’s historic cities, have brought the Wolvercote Tongue to England to donate it to the museum. When Laura suddenly dies on the first night of the tour group’s stop in Oxford, the Wolvercote Tongue disappears. At first, the disappearance looks to be a simple theft. The next day, though, Theodore Kemp, director of the Museum, is murdered. Morse becomes convinced that the two events are related, and he and Lewis investigate them together. As the two sleuths follow up on everyone’s alibi for the time of the murder, they find out that nearly everyone connected with the tour and with Theo Kemp is lying about what happened on the afternoon that Kemp was killed. Some of the lies serve to “hide” Kemp’s killer. Others are not related to the murder. So Morse and Lewis have to sort out which lies are relevant to the case and which aren’t. As they uncover each lie, they also have to readjust their theories of the case more than once, as different characters’ alibis fall apart.

That’s also true of Dexter’s The Secret of Annexe 3. In that novel, the management of the Haworth Hotel decides to host a New Year’s Eve gala, to boost occupancy during a typically slow time of the year. The ball is a great success; in fact, every room in the hotel is taken, so some guests are given rooms in the hotel’s smaller annexe. The well-attended gala culminates in a costume ball, and most of the guests participate. Late on the night of the ball, one of the guests is found murdered in his room. Since the hotel is very near Inspector Morse’s home, he’s called in to investigate, even though he’s officially on furlough. His focus quickly becomes the people whose rooms are in the annexe, where the dead man was found. Interestingly enough, the annexe is occupied by three couples, all of whom lied about their names and addresses when they booked the rooms. So Morse and Lewis first have to unravel those lies before they find out who the dead man really was and why he was killed.

We see another example of a tissue of lies in Michael Crichton’s A Case of Need (which he wrote under the name of Jeffrey Hudson). Dr. John Berry is a Boston pathologist whose good friend, Dr. Art Lee, is accused of botching an abortion that ends of killing wealthy and well-connected Karen Randall. Since, at the time this book was written, abortion was not legall in the United States, Lee risks jail not only for malpractice, but also for performing an illegal abortion. Lee begs Berry to help him clear his name if Berry can, and Berry agrees. As he begins to look into the case, he finds more and more details that aren’t consistent with Lee’s conducting the abortion or being Karen’s killer. However, the Randall family has put a great deal of pressure on local law enforcement, the media, and, since Dr. Peter Randall is a prominent surgeon, the hospital establishment, to solve the case quickly. Since they already have Lee in custody, everyone wants the case closed. Then, Berry discovers evidence that Karen Randall was involved in the Boston counterculture, and a whole new set of possible suspects is identified. Now, Berry has to solve Karen’s murder before he himself becomes a victim. By the end of the novel, Berry finds out that nearly all of the characters know more than they are telling, and most of them are lying about what they know. It’s not until the end that Berry finds out the real truth about what happened to Karen Randall.

Ian McFadyen’s Little White Lies also centers on the lies people tell and the secrets that they keep – sometimes for years. In that novel, Inspector Steve Carmichael and his family move from London to a small town in West Lancashire, where, they hope, they’ll be able to take advantage of a quieter life. The town of Moulton Bank is especially appealing to the Carmichaels because Steve’s wife, Penny, grew up there. Within days, though, their plan to live more quietly is shattered when a local woman is murdered. As Carmichael and his team begin to investigate, they find that the death is connected to the village’s past – and to his wife. Then, a second murder is committed. Now it’s clear that several of the villagers have been keeping secrets for a long time and telling lies about them. Carmichael and his team have to uncover those secrets in order to prevent more murders.

One of the most famous novels in which everyone lies is Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, in which businessman Samuel Ratchett is stabbed to death on the second night of his trip through Europe on the world famous Orient Express. Hercule Poirot is among Ratchett’s fellow travelers, and he’s asked to help investigate the murder. In the process, Poirot interviews all of the other passengers. Each one of them provides evidence – and every single one of them is lying about something. As the novel moves along, we find out, bit by bit, what each one’s lie is. In the end, Poirot finds out the truth, despite the fact that no-one has been telling the truth.

Lies are an integral part of crime fiction, and it can be intellectually interesting to tease apart what suspects and witnesses lie about from what they say that’s true. Do you agree? Do you enjoy crime fiction that’s based on sorting out everyone’s lies? Or do you prefer your crime fiction to be more straightforward?

Now, let’s see just how good you are at uncovering a lie. In keeping with today’s theme, I’d like to mention an award that Confessions of a Mystery Novelist… has just received – the –er – Creative Writer Blogger Award. Thanks very much to Mason at Thoughts in Progress for recognizing Confessions… I do appreciate it. This award is designed to give blog readers a bit of a challenge. I’ve been asked to list six things about myself. Five are true and one – isn’t. Then, I’ve been asked to pass this award on to seven other bloggers. I’ll pass the award on soon. For now, here are six things about me. Five are true and one is not. Can you guess which one isn’t true?

1. I used to do gymnastics, although I’ve never competed in any major meets. I liked floor routines the best.
2. I’m a keyboard and vocalist musician; I’ve sung and played at several coffeehouses, although not yet at Wembley Stadium ; ).
3. Because of a childhood fall into a pool, I’m really afraid of water and swimming. Ironic, since I live just under 10 km from the beach.
4. I once saw a pride of lions finishing off a wildebeest. Strangely enough, it wasn’t nearly as gory as you would think.
5. I once drove across the U.S. state of Pennsylvania (about 497 km) in an old car that had a tailpipe that kept falling off. Every few miles, I had to stop, get out, crawl under the car and hammer it back into place. Not a fun trip.
6. I’m related on my mother’s side to Wilbur and Orville Wright, the developers of the airplane. Some kind of pedigree, isn’t it?

Now…which one of these is not true? I’ll answer that one tomorrow…


  1. I think a mystery wouldn't be a mystery if lies weren't told. I think even our main characters tell lies to the reader believing they are telling the truth.


  2. Margot, I think No. 1 is the lie, only because it seems like it could be true. The rest of the items on the list show us you've had a very interesting life.

  3. Ann - You're absolutely right! Lies are the essence of a good murder mystery. Even the sleuth lies at times. It makes sense, too. when you think that we all have things we would probably rather not have people know about, so telling a harmless lie is probably not a stretch of the imagination. And of course, most people wouldn't admit to anyone - especially not a sleuth - if they've murdered.

    Patricia - Thanks for your guess : ). I agree that a good lie is plausible. Check back tomorrow, and I'll tell...

  4. I will take a guess that #4 is a lie...

    As for telling fibs and whoppers: those are tools of the trade among mystery writers!

  5. Deadly Letters - How right you are! Lies of all kinds are useful in many, many ways in a mystery novel. They're interesting plot points, they make for effective suspense, and they are a natural and believable reaction to a crime like murder.

    Thanks, too, for your guess : ). The answer comes tomorrow...

  6. Oh Margot, you are good. I won't even begin to guess. You've made them all sound plausible. I'll check to tomorrow to see, I'm guessing #... no that could be true. Never mind. Enjoyed your post and was very fitting for your award.

  7. Mason - Thanks : ). I admit, it was fun. I really enjoyed your list, too : ). Check tomorrow and get the answer ; ).

  8. I'm guessing #5, but actually they could all be true. Great post.

  9. Barbara - Thanks for your kind words - and your guess : ). Tune in tomorrow ; )...

  10. As all these ´facts´ about you could very well be true, I am also guessing # 1, the most ordinary one of them :D

    It is difficult to imagine a crime plot without several lies - it would be too easy for the police, wouldn´t it? But I think the number of lies is sometimes exaggerated in the old puzzles. I don´t believe all these conservative old geezers would tell nothing but lies :D

    My late father was extremely truthful so when I asked him what he thought about my bridal dress, I knew I would get nothing but the truth. Fortunately he liked it. I have only known him to tell a lie once: a youngish oddball wanted to go out with my oldest sister, but my father told him she wasn´t home - to protect her, or rather to save her the embarrassment of telling him she didn´t want to :D

  11. Dorte - Thanks for your guess. I'll satisfy everyone's curiousity tomorrow : ).

    You're right, too, about lies. There really couldn't be an interesting crime plot of everyone was honest about everything. What an interesting thought, too, about the differences between the lies told in older, classic crime fiction and the lies told in more recent crime fiction. I'll have to think about, and raed about, that difference - thanks : ).

    I liked your story about your father. I think most dads would lie if it meant protecting their children. That's just a terrific story : ) I'll bet I would have liked your father.

  12. Well, you might not have noticed him if you had met him as he was rather quiet and unobtrusive, but he was a wonderful father, and I loved him dearly! Fortunately I still have my mother, and though I can live with the fact that I have not had any texts published yet, I would really love to tell her I had sold one :D

  13. Dorte - I am glad you still have your mother, and that she has you : ). I have faith that you'll get your work published, and she'll be very proud of you then : ).

  14. Well, I have come to this post late so I already know the answer, having read tomorrow's post already! Funny to read all the guesses in retrospect.

    Lies do so often trip up the murderer in crime fiction, don't they? A very good round up of examples.

  15. Maxine - That's what I so like about lies in crime fiction (less so, of course, in life!). They serve to confuse the sleuth and the reader, but in the end, they very often catch the murderer. That's why Christie's Hercule Poirot says that lies tell one as much as truth does. It's much easier to tell the truth than it is to lie, so sooner or later, the murderer slips up in casual conversation and there you are with a murderer behind bars.

    ..and I thought the guesses were fun, too : ).