The first time I ever emailed an author, it was to enquire of Harlan Coben why he’d opted in Tell No One (2001) to switch between first- and third-person narrative in the telling of a story that, to my callow, untutored eye, could have told throughout in third person. I phrased it more politely than that, but you get the gist.
Coben’s reply was as revealing as I should perhaps have expected — essentially ‘because I wanted to write it that way’ which, yeah, is fair enough — but this was the first time I remember looking at the choice made around the use of narrator in the telling of a story. Obviously Agatha Christie was always going to tell The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) from the first-person point of view of Dr. Sheppard and would be careful to not tell, say, Peril at End House (1932) from a certain perspective, and obviously R. Austin Freeman had his reasons for telling the stories in The Singing Bone (1912) in such a way that revealed as much as Christie had sought to obfuscate. Most of the time, these decisions are borne out by the direction the plot takes, the nature of the surprise — if surprise there is — the author wishes to spring, and the ground a book needs to cover in order for the necessary plot elements to be communicated to the reader.
Broken down crudely, third-person narration is the author telling you, the reader, what their characters are up to, and first-person narration is the author pretending to be one of those characters telling you, the reader, what they and the people they encounter are doing. And, in the crime/mystery/detection genre, it seems to me that first person narration is far the more forgiving voice in which to work. Any infelicities with description in third-person telling are laid at the foot of the author themself, whereas in first-person works it can be seen as a quirk of the narrator: not that the author is responsible and has wasted our time by not declaring clues or mentioning events, but that the narrator simply didn’t want to tell you and that the author has, therefore, been really very clever…while essentially still guilty of the same failings.
After all, the trope is called The Unreliable Narrator, as if whoever wrote the book is in some way exonerated.
I’ve been mulling on this very topic for a while now (hey, I’ve been inside avoiding people for a year…) and it was brought to a head recently by my reading Murder Isn’t Easy (1936), the third book by Richard Hull. Concerning the three pincipal officers of the NeO-aD advertising agency, Murder Isn’t Easy — Christie would respectfully disagree three years later — starts off by charting the growing dissatisfaction ideas man Nicholas Latimer feels regarding chief salesman Paul Spencer, and Latimer’s eventual conviction that Spencer should be removed by means more foul than fair.
Of course, in a crude way, it is perfectly simple. Anyone can buy a knife and stick it in someone else’s back. It is merely a question of courage. But I am too much of an atrist to do that, I had no intention of — to use a vulgar phrase — swinging for Spencer. Frankly, he was not worth it.
Initially presenting himself — it is his narrative, after all — as the sole source of reason in the company, and, indeed, the only one of the three to do any work, like the best narrators (not their authors, ohno!) Latimer slowly reveals a pettyfogging mindset that is apt to find fault with anyone who does not immediately accede to his requests or point of view. Turned down by a bank manager when trying to secure a loan to first buy Spencer out of the company, he gripes that “I have noticed before that as a class [bank managers] are very poor judges of charatcer and ability. All they can think of is security”, and his main objection to Spencer boils down to the man’s occasional bonhomie because Latimer is “almost convinced that there is no room in advertising for humour. There have, I know, been advertisements which have made us laugh, but how many of them had any real selling value?…[O]nce you have annoyed a reader, your whole appeal is more than lost.”
Hull, of course, is more than wise to the fact that, by the time the above proclamation is made, Nicholas Latimer is a thoroughly annoying prospect. Part of this is Latimer’s habit of seeing a thing only from his own perspective (has a man ever been more self-congratulatory about the manner in which he crosses the road?), and part of it comes from Hull’s decision here to stretch out a thin plot over a bigger frame than it really needs. By the halfway point, Latimer has grown tiresome, and watching the forthcoming scheme through his eyes holds little appeal. And so, no doubt knowing this, Hull tosses Latimer aside and starts again at the beginning…telling us of the affair again, but now from Spencer’s perspective.
This both works and…doesn’t.
The slight disappointment of this approach is that of coure Nicholas Latimer is a boorish, infuriating man who rubs everyone up the wrong way and yet remains convinced of his own superiority — the comment he makes about bathrooms in Rumania is more than sufficient to convince you of that, and we’ve had over one hundred pages of the insufferable bastard. But how do you write about a man like Nicholas Latimer without telling us what a clodhopping, tedious person he is to be around? Spencer, while no doubt equally guilty of conceit (“I really had the only brain there was at NeO-aD”), is a far more enjoyable narrative voice, however, and Hull brings the full force of his bonhomie to bear:
When you get to know [Latimer], of course, he becomes excessively obtrusive, and the more you find out that he has got nothing to be proud about, the more he explains to you that he is the only maggot in the cheese.
We also get, and this will become important later, a sense of how either Latimer’s or Spencer’s narrative might well be — dunh-dunh-duuuuuuunh — unreliable in some of what has been relayed (“I have no doubt that if Nicholas was describing this incident he would say…” after Nicholas has described the incident and did go on to say what Spencer predicts). And then, just as these impressions beegin to solidify, Spencer’s narration is cut off in characteristically careless style and financial brain Sandy Barraclough takes over.
At this point, I mjust be careful not to reveal too much. Barraclough’s perspective starts on page 121 of 207, so we’re deep into events now (such shallow events as they are…) and it’s arguable that it is here where the plot really begins. And the shame of it is that Barraclough — after being seen as someone who “voluntarily lead[s]…such a dull life, full of repressions” — virtually opens his account with an admission that is so brilliant a piece of Unreliable Narrator-baiting that I found myself wisihing it had been saved for the last page. Murder intrudes (“There is no doubt about it; murder in one’s office is a sad hindrance to work.”) and Inspector Hoopington of The Yard appears…but that revelation of Barraclough’s is so wonderful that you feel all the air has been sucked out of the narrative. It can, unfortunately, only go one way form here, and for all Hull’s skill in mustering a third distinct voice there’s little — despite some late efforts to introduce alternate explanations — to delight from here onwards.
The delight of an unreliable narrator — and, like most good things, I believe we have rather too many of them these days, even in the small amoutnof modern crime fiction I read — is the sudden retrospective reappraisal that comes with realising you’ve been duped. It’s fun, halfway through a book, to learn that some of the events you’ve been told about may have been viewed through a glass, squinting. It’s less successful when you tell someone up front that some of what is coming will be untruthful, and t then point out what was untruthful with a third of the book remaining. The trope is most fun when the narrator doesn’t know they’re being unreliable (one of my favourite GAD novels ever does this magnificently…and, no, I won’t tell you which one — that would sort of ruin the point), so to be told upfront what is a lie strikes me exactly as the sort of uncautious thing Paul Spencer would do, but not Barraclough, oh, no.
Murder Isn’t Easy, then, fails because in using his characters follies against them Hull uses the wrong folly for the wrong man, and ends up leaving so little to surprise — even the investigation by Hoopington is brushed over, with explanations given but the process of discovery never feeling convincing — that it falls weirdly between a lot of stools. It is, bizarrely, a sort of acciental inverted mystery that, in a subgenre created on the basis of laying everything before the reader, manages to overdo it and so gets hoist by its own petard. It is, though, a fascinating example of how character can be used to reveal as much by how they say something as by what they’re telling you about. I haven’t read a protagonist this deliberately cluelessly infuriating since Wellington Chickle in Case for Sergeant Beef (1947) by Leo Bruce.
The failings in what you’re not told, however, as in what you are, lie squarely at the feet of Hull. He probably hugged himself with delight when the idea occurred to him, and only the hardest of hearts woulc blame him, but for all his narrative invention in the key ingredient of how to tell it — namely that the plot should be suited to the style of telling used — I feel that he lost sight of why he’d decided to adopt this approach. Flawed, then, but fascinating.
Laurie @ Bedford Bookshelf: Murder Isn’t Easy is an inverted mystery with a twist. We follow the point of view of Nicholas Latimer as he airs grudges, justifies his self-importance, and reasons his way toward murder. Hull takes us to the verge of the actual act, then comes the twist. In a neat take on the unreliable narrator device, the chronicler switches from Latimer to Spencer, then on to Barraclough. In each section Hull’s talent for satirical characterization is given full rein. As they air their petty grudges and opinions, each protagonist has their chance to skewer the others, and reveal their true natures.
Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime: The success of this book rests a lot on its structure and narrative voice, as both these elements, combined with the story’s characterisation, skilfully influence the reader’s viewpoint on events. I think I am safe in saying that this is a novel in which the author very cleverly plays around with our sympathies, making us wonder which character(s) we should be siding with and who we can trust to be telling the truth.