Thursday, February 24, 2011

I Know You've Deceived Me*

Last night, Mr. Confessions of a Mystery Novelist… asked me an interesting question. We were talking about a point in my current work in progress where two characters have blatantly told lies about where they were and what they were doing. My husband asked, “When your characters lie, do your readers know it’s an outright lie, or do they think you’ve just made a mistake in detail?” That’s a good question, and it raises the interesting question of how crime fiction authors handle characters who lie. On one hand, most of us don’t particularly like to lie, so we betray ourselves with hesitations, blustering, non-verbal signs that we’re uncomfortable, and so on. So having characters who show those signs is authentic and realistic, especially considering the stress of a murder investigation. On the other, if an author makes it too obvious that a character is lying, that may make it too easy on the reader, and that tends to be off-putting. Readers want authors to “play fair,” but they also don’t want the solution to a mystery to be too obvious. Like a lot of other things in crime fiction, this requires a balance.

Agatha Christie’s characters frequently hide things and they do tell lies. In fact, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot claims that everyone involved in murder investigations has something to hide. In some cases, characters lie because they’re trying to cover up some embarrassing private secret. Other characters tell lies because they want to “hide” the murderer or because they’re guilty of the crime. For instance, in Evil Under the Sun, Poirot investigates the strangling murder of beautiful and notorious actress Arlena Stuart Marshall, who was staying with her family at the Jolly Roger Hotel when she was killed. Poirot and the police begin to ask questions about who was where, and who might have seen what, and they interview the staff and the other hotel guests. What they find is that many of the characters tell lies about something. Of course, the murderer lies. But also, two of the characters lie because each thinks the other has committed the crime. Another character lies because that character is hiding some illegal activity. There are other lies, too, and what’s interesting is that very few of the people who are lying act nervous, bluster, or otherwise make it clear that they’re lying. And yet, the reader doesn’t feel cheated. As different pieces of evidence come out, we slowly learn who was lying about what.

The same is true in Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death). Poirot’s secretary Miss Lemon asks him to help her sister Mrs. Hubbard get to the bottom of some strange goings-on at the hostel she manages. Poirot agrees and visits the hostel. On the night of his first visit, one of the residents, Celia Austin, admits she’s been responsible for most of the thefts that have occurred, and promises to make restitution. The matter seems to be settled until two nights later, when Celia Austin apparently commits suicide. It’s soon shown that she was murdered, and Poirot works with Inspector Sharpe to find out who killed Celia Austin and why. To do this, they look into the lives of all of the residents, and it’s interesting to see how each reacts, since many of them are hiding something. Some of them bluster and become truculent. Others try to throw suspicion on other residents. Still others lie very smoothly, so that it’s quite difficult to tell at first that they are lying. Only one of the liars is hiding the fact of being the murderer (although another liar knows who the killer is). Again, as Poirot and Inspector Sharpe and his team investigate, they slowly turn up evidence that unmasks the killer, so that the reader doesn’t feel “blindsided.” This novel also shows how different people react to feeling the need to lie. Some people are very good liars indeed; others are not good liars, and we see both types of people in this novel.

We also see a variety of different kinds of liars in Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn. Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis are investigating the poisoning death of Nicholas Quinn, the only Deaf member of Oxford’s Foreign Examinations Syndicate, which is responsible for managing exams given to students living outside of the UK, but in countries with a British education tradition. Quinn’s appointment to the Syndicate was not a unanimous choice, so more then one member of the group didn’t want him in to begin with. As if that weren’t enough, several members of the Syndicate are hiding some “dirty linen.” And then there’s the secret Quinn discovered and threatened to report. So as Morse and Lewis get to the truth about Quinn’s death, they have to get past a tissue of lies. Some members of the Syndicate lie quite smoothly, others hide behind “officialdom,” and others bluster. Again, it’s interesting to see how the different personalities in this novel react to feeling the pressure to lie.

Lying takes on a very eerie quality in Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. That’s the story of Joanna Eberhart, who moves with her lawyer husband Walter and their children from New York City to the quiet, peaceful town of Stepford, Connecticut. At first, all goes very well. The family settles in and makes friends, and Joanna is even exploring the possibility of turning her talent at photography into a full-time career. Slowly, though, Joanna and her friend Bobbie Markowe begin to suspect that all is not as it seems in Stepford. Joanna searches for the meaning behind some strange goings-on, but the more questions she asks, the more lies she’s told. In fact, the lies in Stepford are so well-told that Joanna begins to wonder if she’s having some sort of mental breakdown. It’s really chilling to see how well-told lies and well-planned cover-ups can make one doubt oneself.

Peter Robinson’s All The Colours of Darkness also shows how accomplished a liar can be. In that novel, DI Annie Cabot is called to the scene of an apparent suicide. Mark Hardcastle, who designed costumes for the Eastvale Amateur Dramatic Society, a local theatrical troupe, has been found hung in a local woods. Very soon afterwards, the body of his lover Lawrence Silbert is discovered in Silbert’s own home. At first, it seems like this might be a case of murder/suicide. But it’s not long before Cabot and her boss Alan Banks discover that there’s more to this case than that. It seems that Silbert was an MI6 agent, especially valued because of his gift for languages. Because Silbert was a secret agent, Banks and Cabot have to sift through a whole set of official and unofficial lies to find out why Silbert and Hardcastle were killed and who killed them. In this novel, very few people start off by telling the truth and even in the end, there are still lies that people don’t admit having told.

We see a variety of different reactions to lying in Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s Last Rituals, in which she introduces her sleuth, Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir. One day, Thóra gets an unexpected call from Germany from Amelia Guntlieb, whose son Harald was studying in Iceland when he was murdered. The police think that Harald’s former friend and room-mate Hugi Thórisson is guilty, but the Guntlieb family doesn’t think he’s responsible. They hire Thóra to work with their banking representative Matthew Reich to find out who really committed the crime. Throughout the novel, Thóra and Matthew interview Guntlieb’s friends, school-mates, professors and just about anyone else with whom he had contact. Several people have reasons to lie, including the murderer. At one point, Thóra is interviewing a group of Guntlieb’s friends. Each of them is hiding something important, and each reacts to that a bit differently. One brazens it out, one says nearly nothing, but Thóra picks up the evasiveness, and others react in other ways. It’s a very interesting example of how people with different personalities react when they’re covering something up. In the end, Thóra and Matthew find out the real reason Guntlieb was killed and are able to separate the lies that cover up other things from the lies that hide the murderer.

It’s an entirely human reaction to lie under the stress of a murder investigation, whether or not one’s actually guilty of the murder. And it’s interesting to see the way people go about lying. Some are very skilled and some aren’t. But what’s your view? Do you feel “cheated” when a killer has lied well enough that you didn’t notice it at first? If you’re a writer, how do you handle characters who lie? How obvious do you think it should be that a character is lying?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Who's I Can See For Miles.


  1. I find it very difficult to lie and have never had a character do it. But I seldom have a need to in my stories. They're not about investigation, more about instigation. I never even thought about it until now.

  2. Patti - You know, it's funny; I'm not a good liar, either. In fact, that sometimes makes it a challenge for me to pull off a character lying in a believable way. I'll have to think about focusing instigation, maybe...

  3. I love when I find out a character has lied to me and done it well. Agatha Christie's 'Endless Night' really surprised me at the end.

  4. Charmaine - Oh, very good example of a good liar! Thanks for reminding me :-). And I have to say, I admire it, too, when a character believably pulls off a lie. It's a sign of good writing...

  5. Alrighty; confession time. I'm actually a fairly good liar, probably because of my years of acting experience! Do my characters lie? Some of them. Some are better at it than others, and all their lies are eventually revealed. Of course they lie; most are suspects in a murder investigation and some are sitting atop of some fairly compelling motives. Who wouldn't lie under the circumstances? Of course, bless them, it just makes their situations worse when the lies are discovered...

  6. Elspeth - Actually, I'd think if you've got an acting background, it's pretty natural to play a part. So I can see how an actor could also be a good liar. That really makes sense to me.

    So does the fact that characters lie when they're murder suspects. And I'm glad you have some of them better liars than others; to me, that's only natural. That's the way people are. And isn't it interesting that it just about always ends up worse if one's lie is discovered later than if one had just been upront? Of course, then there wouldn't be a lot of good stuff for a murder mystery plot ;-).

  7. “When your characters lie, do your readers know it’s an outright lie, or do they think you’ve just made a mistake in detail?” I´d definitely blame your characters and not you, Margot :D

    And it´s funny, because I despise lies and liars in real life, but again, I really enjoy making my characters commit most of the sins in the world. So I try to include some discrete lies and others that are more open in all my long works. And I just love it when my smart beta-readers tell me that they noticed. And obviously, some of the lies must be made by fairly innocent people who just try to hide a silly hobby or something.

  8. Dorte - Thanks for having so much faith in me :-).

    You know, it's funny. Like you, I'm very different in real life to what I have my characters do, and I think that's true of a lot of writers. In real life, I'm not a good liar and I don't like lies and lying. And yet, my characters lie. Sometimes it's to cover up something embarrassing or something they think will get them in trouble. Sometimes it's to hide being a killer. And sometimes the lies are more obvious than others. And yeah, I like it, too, when my beta readers notice things like that :-).

  9. Over my thirty years as a federal agent, one axiom always remained the same: Lie to me.

    Lies gave me something to work with, exposed areas of vulnerability. They let me know I was on the right track. Lies were always more informative than truth--when suspects parceled out little nuggets of information, it was on their terms, measured, filtered. When they lied--and I was able to figure it out--the information was usually more substantive, more telling. If everyone told the truth, I would have been out of a job, which would have been a bad thing. So I repeat, for the benefit of all bad guys who might be reading this: Lie to me. Please!

  10. Finnjacksonink - You've got such a very good point! When people lie, that really does make them vulnerable. Not only does the lie itself expose a weakness, but the kind of lie also does. And once you've found that weakness, you're in control of the situation. In fact, as I read your comment, I was thinking of what Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot has said about this. He claims that when people lie, they give out at least as much information - usually more - as they do when they tell the truth.

  11. I think it's important for some characters to lie. But a smart detective will question it. AC did this a lot in her books. Poirot always assumed people hid things and wouldn't believe people unless confirmed in other ways. As writers, I think the characters can lie without body language betraying them but a writers an play fair by having the detective or officer question all statements.

  12. Clarissa - You've got a very good point! Not all characters lie in the same way, and some of them lie very well. Their body language doesn't give them away, and their lies are consistent. But the smart sleuth knows that suspects are probably going to lie. Even if the lie is about something silly and not related to the murder, people do lie when they're under stress. So the wise detective doesn't automatically believe anything s/he's told. That really is a good way to alert the reader that nothing is likely to be what it seems ;-).