Most of us keep certain things to ourselves. Lots of times it’s because they’re private, and sometimes we keep things to ourselves because they are embarrassing or could cause hurt and a rift in a relationship. So it may not always be such a bad thing to keep certain things quiet. But there also comes a time when not being forthright does a lot more harm than good. We definitely see plenty of that in crime fiction. If you’ve ever had the urge to shake a character and say, ‘Well if you’d only told ___ about everything, none of this would have happened!’ you know what I mean. It’s not easy to add that plot point to a novel without making a character either not credible (i.e. Really? You’re hiding that?) or not likeable. But when it’s done well, those points where characters aren’t honest when they should be can add tension to a crime novel. And in some cases, there really wouldn’t be a solid plot without those moments.
For instance, in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone, George and Jacqueline Coverdale hire a new housekeeper Eunice Parchman. Jacqueline doesn’t bother to check her new employee’s references particularly well but at first, it doesn’t seem to matter. Parchman does her job well enough and the busy Coverdales don’t really notice a problem. But Eunice Parchman has not been honest with the Coverdales. She is keeping a secret that she’s desperate for them not to discover, and goes to great lengths to avoid telling them. When her secret is accidentally found out, this seals the Coverdales’ fates although they don’t know it at the time. And what’s tragic about it all is that if she had simply told the Coverdales the truth from the outset, a lot of tragedy could have been avoided.
In Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, Kindle County’s chief deputy prosecutor Rožat ‘Rusty’ Sabich is assigned to investigate the murder of a colleague Carolyn Polhemus. There is a lot of pressure to solve this case quickly and Sabich gets to work right away. What he doesn’t tell his boss is that he had a relationship with Polhemus that ended just a few months before she was murdered. On the one hand, one can understand why Sabich might not exactly trumpet the news of his affair. On the other, it’s not surprising that the news of it comes out anyway, and when it does, Sabich is in far more trouble than he might have been had he simply been honest at the beginning. Soon, pieces of evidence begin to turn up that implicate Sabich in the murder and before long he finds himself arrested for the crime. Now he’s on the ‘other side,’ so to speak, and hires attorney Alejandro ‘Sandy’ Stern to defend him. Together they work with Sabich’s friend detective Dan Lipranzer to find out the truth about Carolyn Polhemus’ death and clear Sabich of the charges against him. In this novel, the fact that Sabich isn’t honest with his boss at first doesn’t change the fact of who killed the victim. But it does add a really interesting and believable layer of tension to the story.
Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move is the story of science fiction writer Zach Walker and his family. Walker believes that his family isn’t safe in the city so he moves everyone to a new home in a suburb called Valley Forest Estates. They’re not there long when they learn that their house has all sorts of problems with it, so Walker goes to the housing development’s sales office to get someone to make repairs. While he’s there, he witnesses a loud argument between a Valley Forest sales executive and environmental activist Samuel Spender. Later, Walker finds Spender’s body in a local creek and gets drawn into finding out who killed him. And that’s where Walker begins to cover up too much, especially from his wife Sarah. For instance, at one point he and Sarah are shopping when he notices a handbag left in a shopping cart. Thinking it’s his wife’s he grabs it and puts it in the car. When he sees that it’s not hers, instead of telling her he took the wrong handbag, Walker says nothing and tries to secretly return the handbag (in which, by the way, he finds quite a lot of money) to its owner. Without telling his wife what he’s doing, he goes to the owner’s home where he finds another body. The more Walker tries to stay out of trouble, the more his dissembling and hiding things gets him into trouble. Still, he finds out who committed both murders and he finds out some other interesting secrets about the housing development. On the one hand, simply telling everything right from the start would have saved Walker an awful lot of trouble. On the other, his less-than-honest choices make for some funny moments in the books and Barclay handles them well (at least in my opinion).
There’s a much less humorous look at lack of honesty in Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal. Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik have hit an unhappy point in their marriage. Eva thinks it’s temporary until she discovers that her husband has been unfaithful. Instead of openly and honestly discussing what’s happened, both Eva and Henrik hide things. Henrik won’t be honest with his wife about his new lover and Eva isn’t honest about the course of action she takes after she finds out about her husband’s infidelity. Their choices, and most importantly their decision not to be honest with themselves and with each other, lead to real tragedy. First, Eva’s course of action leads her in a direction she never could have anticipated. Then, Henrik too makes a choice that has an unhappy and unintended consequence. The result is devastation that could have been prevented if this couple had only been honest in the first place.
In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri learns from news broadcasts and newspapers that a former client Dr. Suresh Jha has died in a bizarre incident. According to witnesses, the goddess Kali appeared and killed Jha in revenge for his ongoing efforts to debunk spiritualism. Jha was the founder of the Delhi Institute for Rationalism and Education (DIRE), a group committed to unmasking scams committed in the name of spiritualism, and he had dedicated his life to convincing people not to believe ‘the Godmen.’ The doctor’s report, witness statements and other pieces of evidence seem to suggest that Jha’s death has a supernatural cause and a lot of people believe that. Puri, though, is not convinced. It’s not that he’s not spiritual, but he is quite certain that Jha died at very human hands. So he begins to investigate. The trail leads to a famous magician, a cult leader and other members of Jha’s organisation. Then, two more murders happen. Little by little, Puri finds out what really happened to Dr. Jha. And when he does, we learn of a few people who could have prevented the murders if they had just been honest from the start, when Puri began his investigation. Their reasons for not doing so are believable, but one still wants to ask them why on earth they didn’t simply tell Puri the truth in the first place.
And then there’s Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear, in which Sydney police detective Ella Marconi and her team investigate the shooting death of Paul Fowler. One of the first paramedics on the scene is Holly Garland, who sees to her dismay that her brother Seth is among the people who were with Fowler at the time of his death. Holly has several reasons to keep as far away from Seth as she can but when Marconi interviews her, Holly isn’t completely forthcoming about why. Holly has a past that she doesn’t want to share with anyone, least of all the people with whom she works. So she’s taken to saying nothing. The problem is that her silence begins to cause her serious trouble when one of her colleagues remembers her from another time. At first Holly dissembles, hides things and does everything she can not to tell the truth to anyone. At the end though, she finds that if she had simply told the truth, she’d have saved herself a lot of stress and trouble. Holly’s secret isn’t the reason for Paul Fowler’s murder, but it makes for an interesting and tense sub-plot.
All of us keep things to ourselves; it’s a fairly natural impulse. But there comes a time when not being honest has much more serious consequences than simply telling the truth in the first place. In real life that can cause heartache and worse. In crime fiction it can spin things deliciously out of control and cause fascinating tension.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Honesty.