If I Listened Long Enough to You, I’d Find a Way to Believe That it’s All True*

Believing the LieMost of us don’t feel particularly comfortable when we lie, even if it’s a ‘little white lie’ that’s meant well. It’s not in most people’s nature to lie easily, and that’s why police interrogators, profilers and so on can often tell when a person is lying. Non-verbals and other hints make it clear that that person isn’t entirely comfortable.

There are some people though who are very, very good liars. In fact, they’re so good at lying that they seem to (or do they?) believe the lies themselves. That can be scary because it’s hard to know exactly what is true and what is not true. And in crime fiction, it means that the sleuth has to go through layers upon layers of what a person says to get to the truth of a case. There are many, many examples of this kind of character in crime fiction. I’ll just mention a few to give you a sense of what I mean.

In Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Velvet Claws, attorney Perry Mason gets a new client Eva Griffin. She’s being blackmailed by Frank Locke, a reporter for Spicy Bits, who has threatened to publicise her romance with up-and-coming politician Hamilton Burke. Since Eva is married, this could be damaging both to her and to Burke. So she wants Mason to stop Locke. Mason agrees, but it’s not long before he learns that Eva Griffin is not a truthful client. She hasn’t even told him her real name, which is Eva Belter. But truthful or not, Eva is Mason’s client, so he continues to work on the case. Then one night, he gets a frantic call from Eva, who tells him that her husband George has just been shot. She begs Mason for help and he agrees to go. But it’s not long before Eva herself is accused of the murder. Mason does his best to defend his client, who swears that she is not guilty. But Eva cannot seem to tell the truth about much of anything. She tells so many lies in fact that Mason’s assistant Della Street wants him to drop the case. Mason refuses though, and perseveres until he finds out who really killed George Belter and why.

In Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, Hercule Poirot is invited to a very unusual dinner. The eccentric Mr. Shaitana has invited seven other guests: three other sleuths and four people who, Shaitana hints, have got away with murder. During the meal, Shaitana throws out hints to each of the suspected killers. Then after dinner, everyone settles in to play bridge. Sometime during the game, one of the guests stabs Shaitana. There are only four possible suspects – the four people Shaitana had hinted were murderers. So Poirot, Superintendent Battle, Colonel Race and Ariadne Oliver work to find out which guest is the murderer. To do this, they have to look into the past history of each guest to find out whether they committed murder and whether Shaitana could have known about it. One of the guests Anne Meredith was companion to a woman named Mrs. Benson, who died tragically of poisoning from hat paint. It was always assumed that she accidentally confused the hat paint with medicine she was supposed to be taking. But is that what really happened? Did Anne Meredith poison her? If so, did she also stab Shaitana? It’s hard to know if she’s the guilty party because as the sleuths discover, Anne Meredith is a very accomplished liar…

Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man introduces us to Nick and Nora Charles, who are visiting New York. By chance, Dorothy Wynant spots Nick, who’s a former private detective, and asks for his help. Her father Clyde Wynant disappeared after a bitter breakup with her mother Mimi, and she wants to track him down. Nick wants nothing to do with the case at first, but then he gets a visit from Wynant’s attorney Herbert Macaulay, who wonders whether Nick has been hired to find Wynant. Then the next day Wynant’s secretary Julia Wolf is found murdered. Now Nick is drawn into the case and finds himself trying to find out what’s happened to Wynant and who killed his secretary. One of the suspects is Mimi Wynant, but it’s very difficult to find out anything from her. As one of the other characters puts it:


‘When you catch her in a lie, she admits it and gives you another lie to take its place and, when you catch her in that one, admits it and gives you still another, and so on….She keeps trying and you’ve got to be careful or you’ll find yourself believing her, not because she seems to be telling the truth, but simply because you’re tired of disbelieving her.’


What makes Mimi all the more interesting is that at times it’s hard to tell whether she is actually aware she’s lying, or whether she really believes the things that she says.

Wendy James’ Out of the Silence is a fictionalised retelling of the story of Maggie Heffernan. In 1900, she was convicted of the killing of her infant son and remanded to a Melbourne prison. But the story behind those events is not as simple as it seems, as we learn in James’ retelling. In 1898, Maggie meets Jack Hardy, who’s visiting from Sydney. As the saying goes, he sweeps her off her feet. Before she knows it she’s in love, and Hardy seems to reciprocate her feelings. They become engaged but Hardy asks her to keep it secret for the moment until he can find steady work. He then returns to New South Wales to find work. Not long afterwards Maggie finds out that she’s pregnant. She writes several times to Hardy but he doesn’t answer her letters. In the meantime, Maggie knows that she won’t be accepted by her own family, so she makes her way to Melbourne where she gets work in a Guest House. When baby Jacky is born, she arranges to go to a home for mothers and their newborns. Then she finally manages to track Hardy down. Bringing baby Jacky along, she goes to Hardy’s home. Instead of greeting her warmly, Hardy insists that she’s crazy and won’t admit that Jacky is his son. When it finally hits Maggie that Hardy has no intention of marrying her and never really did, she leaves but she has nowhere else to go really. In fact, she’s turned away from six lodging places. That’s when the tragedy with Jacky occurs. Is Jack Hardy that accomplished a liar? Or did he really believe his own lies? It’s an interesting question…

In A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife, we meet Jodi Brett and Todd Gilbert. They’re successful Chicago professionals who’ve been in a relationship for twenty years. Then, Todd has an affair with a university student Natasha Kovacs, who is also the daughter of his longtime friend Dean Kovacs. Todd has been unfaithful before, but this time, Natasha gets pregnant. She wants to get married and be a family, and Todd promises that’s what he wants too. He even arranges with his lawyer to serve Jodi with eviction papers that will force her to leave the home they’ve shared. As Jodi’s life falls apart, she becomes desperate. Then, Todd is murdered and everything changes. The novel is told from both Jodi’s and Todd’s perspectives. And it’s really interesting to see how Harrison uses that to show how Todd lies to both of the women in his life. Is he a malicious liar? Does he really believe the lies he tells? And Jodi isn’t perfect either. What about her lies? That question forms a layer of real interest in the story.

And then there’s Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. Joanna Lindsay and Alistair Robertson suffer the worst tragedy that any couple can – the loss of their nine-week-old son Noah. When Noah goes missing, the entire Australian media gets to work. First of course, the goal is to find Noah. But slowly, questions are raised about both parents, and soon enough, people begin to wonder whether the truth about Noah is much darker than anyone thought. This story is told from Joanna’s perspective and from the perspective of Alistair’s former wife Alexandra, and as it unfolds, we see that it’s much more complex than it seems on the surface. There are several layers of lies here, and what’s interesting is that sometimes, it almost seems as though the people who are lying actually believe those lies. Or do they? I can’t say a lot more without spoiling the story, but it’s a fascinating study of people’s ability to lie.

There really are people who become so good at telling lies that they almost seem to convince themselves. Certainly they are good at using lies to manipulate others. These are just a few examples. Your turn.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tim Hardin’s Reason to Believe, made perhaps most famous by Rod Stewart.


Filed under A.S.A. Harrison, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Erle Stanley Gardner, Helen Fitzgerald, Wendy James

22 responses to “If I Listened Long Enough to You, I’d Find a Way to Believe That it’s All True*

  1. Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair – the case deals with a young woman, seemingly innocent and ill-used, who accuses a respectable mother and daughter pair of kidnapping her to make her their servant. It’s fairly clear from the beginning that we are on the accuseds’ side, not the young woman: but the question is, will she be proved to be a very smooth and convincing liar? Tey makes it quite tense… and someone is telling an awful lot of lies…

    • Moira – Oh, that is a great example of exactly what I mean about this whole question of lying. As you say, it can really add much to the tension in a book and we don’t know exactly how it’ll all pan out. Tey was good at that buildup of tension I think; I’m glad you filled in that gap.

  2. Margot: Trial lawyers spend most of their working lives sorting out deception with lying being less common than being mistaken. Most often deceit comes from selective memory, recalling what you want to have happened. Occasionally confusion or alcohol or drugs interfere with memory.

    Arthur Beauchamp, in Trial of Passion by William Deverell, is persuaded to defend law professor, Jonathan O’Donnell, against rape accusations by Kimberley Martin. She has rushed from his home wearing but a tie while adorned with lipstick designs and red circled nipples. Was the young woman lying?

    Michael Connelly certainly seems to be a good man but he creates some of the most conniving dissembling characters in current crime fiction. Poor Mickey Haller always seems to be representing clients whose veracity ranges from questionable to non-existent.

    • Bill – I can well imagine that lawyers have to do a lot of checking and sorting out to figure out exactly what happened in a given case. And the whole question of selective memory is absolutely fascinating. It’s so interesting the things that we choose to remember (or don’t) and think happened (or didn’t). And as you say, that’s not the same as deliberate deception.
      I’m glad you filled in the gap I left with that Deverell suggestion. It’s exactly the kind of thing I had in mind when I wrote this post. And yes indeed, Mickey Haller represents some real dissemblers. Connelly makes his characters convincing enough too that readers stay engaged in the story. After all, what if that person really is telling the truth???

  3. Interesting post. What I think is interesting is the extent to which some people can’t be bothered to lie anymore. I’ve noticed with my students, very few lie to me – they think telling the truth, however unpalatable is somehow better. I wonder if it’s a generational thing. I rarely get ‘the cat ate my homework’ any longer. More, ‘I couldn’t be bothered’ 😦

    • Sarah – Thanks for the kind words. I know what you mean too about what students say; I get that sort of thing from my students. On the one hand, I would rather not be lied to, of course. On the other, I think ‘I couldn’t be bothered’ is disheartening. Well it is to me.

  4. I don’t have any examples and I thought about this for awhile. I may go off the subject again so pardon me but how would you fit in unreliable narrators? Those stories are tricky. Have you done a topic on those yet? I could list two authors who are good with that – Tana French and William Landay. Might too spoilerish to speak about those types of stories. Not sure. This was interesting post and I always get good book recs from these posts, too. Thanks Margot.

    • Keishon – Thanks for the kind words. You’re quite right about both Landay and French; they are good at creating unreliable narrators. And that is an absolutely fascinating topic. I can think of several novels actually where the whole case depends on just how reliable the narrator is – which isn’t very…

  5. Some interesting sounding books there. Both ‘Out of the Silence’ and ‘The Cry’ sound like they would be strong reads. And I’ll be singing ‘Reason to Believe’ for the rest of the day now… 😉

    • FictionFan – They both really are compelling reads in my opinion. Both have terrific explorations of our options, the choices we have and what we do with them. Highly recommended. And about the song? You’re welcome. 😉

  6. kathy d.

    So many crime investigations are delving into lies. No murderer who covers up his/her tracks is truthful. Unraveling the lies is the crux of so many mysteries.
    Bringing up Michael Connelly’s Mickey Haller character, I think The Lincoln Lawyer is a brilliant example of not only a slick liar, but how Haller deals with the situation once he figures out the lies is really the stuff of a good mystery.
    Interesting to say that Landay and French are good at creating unreliable narrators. I hadn’t thought of their books that way, but it’s a good point.
    Live and learn every day, especially at blogs. I thought the Landay character was in total denial, but now I must think that through again.
    And “dissemblers,” is a word I haven’t ever used. Hmmm, have to think of how to use it, perhaps not in my daily life, but somehow.

    • Kathy – You’re right that really, a lot of murder investigations have to do with lies. Murderers lie to avoid getting caught for a start. And yes, finding out who’s lying about what is a major part of a lot of criminal investigations.
      Good point about The Lincoln Lawyer. And your comment made me think of The Fifth Witness, too. Another case where Haller deals with a liar.
      And to be honest, I learn from every visit on my blog rounds…

  7. Col

    Hard to think of an example. I do have, unread of course, The Liar by Stephen Fry on the shelf. I think that might involve lying but hey, who knows with him!

    • Col – Yes, there are authors like that aren’t there? You don’t always know exactly what you’re in for I hope you’ll enjoy it when you get the chance to read it.

  8. I spent a week in court about six months ago and can attest to the fact that lying is alive and well in the courtroom – Perjury is the guilty man’s truth. It is an actual disorder and one with which people get away with because as you mention the lies get so complex that the whole scenario confuses!

    • Lesley – I’m sure you could share lots of ‘war stories’ just based on that one experience. You make a well-taken point too about the complexity and confusion of a situation once the lies get going. At a certain point it really does get impossible to tell what’s a lie, what’s the truth, and what’s an honest mistake or misperception.

  9. Karen Russell

    Lying is obviously big among murder mystery characters. You could do a whole other post on lies that are told to the reader, when at first you believe the narrator but then you begin to realize what a liar they are. It can be unsettling!

    • Karen – Oh, that is a good idea for a post – thanks. And yes, lying, whether to the reader or among characters, is really woven tightly throughout the genre.

  10. Margot – It seems I always think of the classics for examples: Brigid O’Shaughenssy in Maltese Falcon, who makes a fine art out of mendacity. Then in real life (fiction, too!) there’s those elected officials who are so good that they believe their own hype (i.e. lies, whether of the little white variety or not), and when said official has lots of power that can be a dangerous situation indeed.

    • Bryan – I like it that you suggest examples from the classics. Not only are they exactly right for the theme, but they’re a good reminder of why the classics are classic. And Brigid O’Shaughnessy certainly does have mendacity down to perfection. And you’re right about politicians too. No matter what one’s political beliefs might be, it really is scary to think of people with a lot of power who actually believe the hype or who are malicious enough to spread it knowing it’s not true. It’s a good argument for citizens being as informed as possible.

  11. Moira’s example of The Franchise Affair is perfect. But I never would have remembered it myself. When I first thought about it all I could think of is unreliable narrators, as Keishon suggested. And part of the point of books like that is not to know that that the narrator is unreliable. And after reading some like that, I stop trusting all narrators.

    • Tracy – I liked the example of The Franchise Affair very much, too. It’s a perfect illustration of what I had in mind. And you make such a very well-taken point about leaving it up to the reader to work out that the narrator isn’t reliable. And when one does, it does make one wonder about any narrator…

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