The Truth Has Become Merely Half-Truth*

HalfTruthsMost of us don’t like to lie, so we’re not particularly good at it. And even those who are fairly good liars generally prefer to tell the truth. There’s less cognitive stress involved. So, when people do lie, they sometimes settle on a kind of not-quite-a-lie. ‘It’s true as far as it goes’ is an expression that captures that rather neatly.

That’s why, when real-life or fictional sleuths investigate, they have to be as alert to what is not said as to what is said. So do crime fiction fans. After all, crime writers can be quite good at hiding clues in those things that aren’t said.

Agatha Christie, for instance, used that sort of strategy in several of her stories. For instance, in Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Hercule Poirot takes on a sixteen-year-old case, the poisoning murder of famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time of the murder, everyone assumed that Crale’s wife Caroline was the killer. There was certainly evidence against her, and she had motive, too; her husband had said he was going to leave her for another woman. But the Crales’ daughter Carla, who was a small child at the time, has always believed her mother to be innocent. So she hires Poirot to find out the truth. To do that, he interviews the five people who were present on the day of the murder. He also gets written accounts from each about the murder and the days leading up to it. From that, he is able to work out who really killed Amyas Crale and why. What’s very interesting about this novel is the number of things that those five people don’t say and write. In some cases, it’s deliberate. In others, it’s forgetfulness or the belief that something or other wasn’t important. But it all adds up. There’s even an Agatha Christie novel (a different one) where one particular sentence highlights some very crucial things that are not said. Readers who don’t pay attention to that are easily led up the proverbial garden path.

In Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die, poet and amateur sleuth Nigel Strangeways investigates the poisoning murder of George Rattery. As the story goes on, we learn that there are several suspects. The victim was an abusive husband and father, so his widow, Violet and son Phil had motive. He was also having an affair with his business partner’s wife, so there’s motive there, too. And he was responsible for a hit-and-run incident that killed Martin ‘Martie’ Cairnes; Cairnes’ father Frank therefore has a motive as well. As it turns out, everyone has something to hide. Part of Strangeways’ task, then, is to learn what is unsaid, and there’s plenty of that. So he pays attention to things people don’t mention, things they gloss over, and so on, to get to the truth.

A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife takes a slightly different approach to the things left unsaid. In that novel, we meet successful developer Todd Gilbert and his psychologist partner Jodi Brett. They’ve been married in everything but name for twenty years when everything changes. Todd begins an affair with Natasha Kovacs, who is the daughter of his business partner. He’s strayed before, but this time, things are different: Natasha discovers that she’s pregnant. She wants to keep the baby, get married and have a family, and Todd tells her that’s what he wants, too. But as he reflects on it, he wants to keep his options open, as the saying goes. So he also tries to ‘mend fences’ with Jodi. For Jodi, it’s humiliating enough that Todd has left her. It’s even more so that he’s not being honest with her (or, for the matter of that, with himself). Matters reach a head when, on the advice of his lawyer, Todd serves Jodi with an order of eviction from their home. The order is, so the attorney says, perfectly legitimate, since the couple is not legally married. And it will protect Todd. With her options running out, Jodi becomes increasingly withdrawn and unhappy. And life’s not any better for Todd, who is finding that living with Natasha and planning their wedding is not turning out as he’d planned. Then, Todd is killed in a drive-by shooting. At first, it looks like a carjacking gone wrong, but the police soon begin to suspect otherwise. As it turns out, someone hired Todd’s murderers, and there are several people who had motive. This novel is told from both Todd and Jodi’s perspectives. And in both cases, there are half-truths that these characters tell each other and themselves that are important to understanding their relationship as well as what happens in the novel.

T.J. Cooke’s Defending Elton is the story of the murder of Sarena Gunasekera, and enigmatic young woman whose body is found at the bottom of a cliff near Beachy Head in Eastbourne. The police soon have a very likely suspect. He is Elton Spears, a mentally troubled young man who’s had brushes with the law before. There’s plenty of circumstantial evidence against him, too. But Spears’ solicitor, Jim Harwood, knows his client and has worked with him previously. Determined to prove his client innocent, Harwood gets started on the case. Throughout this novel, readers know who the killer really is. The question is more whether the killer will get away with the crime. And part of doing that will involve saying things that are true as far as they go, but don’t really tell the whole truth. It’s very delicate balance for the murderer.

Angela Savage’s The Half Child takes another sort of look at things left unsaid. In that novel, Jim Delbeck hires Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney to find out what happened to his daughter, Maryanne. Police reports say that she committed suicide by jumping off the roof of the building where she lived. But Delbeck doesn’t believe his daughter killed herself. Keeney agrees to look into the matter, and gets started on the investigation. She knows that she won’t make much progress, and she will potentially cause a lot of trouble, if she doesn’t pay due respect to the local authorities in Pattaya, where the victim died. So she visits Police Major General Wichit, who has a family connection in Pattaya. They have a very delicate, but ‘loaded’ conversation, with much more implied than said. Keeney once helped Wichit with a very difficult family situation, thereby saving him and his family from ‘losing face.’ So he owes her. On the other hand, it’s very bad form, even insulting, to outright remind him of his debt. So the two refer to it in only the vaguest terms. The reader is aware of the underlying messages, though, and it’s interesting to see how what is not said is at least as important as what is said.

Part of the reason that detectives are able to ‘read between the lines’ is that they are, by and large, able to pick up on subtle nuances of communication, both written and oral. But not everyone can do that. Mark Haddon’s Christopher Boone can’t. As we learn in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, he has autism. He’s high-functioning, but he doesn’t pick up on unspoken cues very well, and he doesn’t understand subtleties of speech. So he’s at a real disadvantage when he decides to conduct an investigation. He discovers the body of the dog that lives on his street one night, and ends up being accused of killing it. He knows he’s innocent, and wants to clear his name. He also wants to be a detective, like Sherlock Holmes. So he begins asking questions. The story is told from his perspective, so it’s really interesting to see how he interprets what is said to him versus what readers can make of it. It’s soon clear that much more is going on in this story than people actually say to Christopher, and that adds layers to the novel.

It’s often easier to tell the truth as far as it goes than it is to outright fabricate. So when people feel the need to hide something or lie, that’s what they often do. It’s no surprise, then, that those unsaid things and half-truths play such an important role in crime fiction.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Depeche Mode’s Lie to Me.


Filed under A.S.A. Harrison, Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Mark Haddon, Nicholas Blake, T.J. Cooke

24 responses to “The Truth Has Become Merely Half-Truth*

  1. No additions today (watching tennis all night leads to brain decay, I find…) but I must say Todd in The Silent Wife seems like the ideal murder victim – one of those ones where the murderer deserves an award rather a sentence… 😉

    • Ah, but tennis, well, sometimes one has to feed the soul (and feast the eyes 😉 ), FictionFan… And about Todd Gilbert? You’re quite right; he definitely would not be in the running for ‘Person of the Year.’

  2. Margot: Robert Rotenberg, author of four excellent legal mysteries, is a practising defence lawyer in Toronto. In an interview with Maclean’s magazine he discussed the real life problems of lawyers interviewing clients accused of crime:

    That’s because everybody lies, although mostly by omission, because everybody has something or someone to protect, he says, and at first they think they can. “When people come to my office, they’re in shock, and I don’t let them talk about their case at all, which drives them crazy because that’s all they want to talk about. But I don’t want them to commit to their stories. It takes a while before they learn that in the criminal justice system you can’t have any secrets.”

    • Oh, that’s brilliantly put, Bill! And it shows that half-truths and not-quite-lies aren’t always deliberate attempts at deception. As you (and he) say, it’s also a matter of an almost automatic need to protect either oneself or someone else. An attorney can’t do his or her best work without knowing everything. And as you quote, that can take a while. Oh, and folks, I recommend Rotenberg’s series. It’s quite well-written.

  3. Last night I finished reading The Darkest Secret – Alex Marwood – all about lies…some incredible ones here… and all seem plausible…

  4. Col

    I’ll have to bump the Harrison book further up the pile. I have the Christie also and you’ve made it sound more interesting than I previously thought!

    • The Harrison is actually really interesting, Col. I think it includes some fascinating characters, too – mostly fascinating because you wonder just what really is the truth. And you’re not likely to get an argument from me about reading Christie… 🙂

  5. Ah, that’s the stuff of crime fiction, isn’t it, lies and omissions. I always find it surprising how people try to hide things in the hope they will never come out, but I suppose it’s a case of hoping against hope that no one will notice. Rather like my younger son saying that he doesn’t know who has emptied the Nutella jar, when I can see the chocolate traces around his mouth. Of course, in Defending Elton, the killer is rather more convincing at reinterpreting the truth.

    • Well, that’s true, Marina Sofia, about Defending Elton. It really is an interesting novel on that score. And you’re right; lies, half-truths and omissions really are the stuff of crime fiction. But I think that reflects real life. As you say, people hope no-one notices the truth, or finds it out, so they lie. Little ones are more obvious about it at times (crumbs and bits of chocolate on the mouth are always giveaways…). But plenty of adults do it, too.

  6. As always, I’m again gobsmacked by your posting; you always give me such great insights and you add to my reading wish-list. So, I say “Thank you” again for putting a little more sunshine in my day. BTW, yours is one of the few mystery/detective/crime fiction blogs that I follow these days. You set the gold standard, and most other so-called top MDC blogs bore me when I compare them to yours. Well, enough gushing for one day. All the best from the damp and overcast Gulf coast.

  7. I have The Silent Wife on my TBR and this post has reminded me why I chose it – as you say plenty of motivation there by the sounds of things – I really must read it!

  8. Kathy D.

    Every murderer lies. Some may lie to protect the person, giving alibis or denying other facts about the person’s history or whereabouts.
    “Defending Jacob” by William Landay is all about lies from start to finish. It’s also about a parent’s lies to himself in the face of reality.

    • You make a well-taken point about Defending Jacob, Kathy. Lies, including those we tell ourselves, play a very important role in that novel. And you’re right that lies are a part of most murder cases. Whether it’s an alibi or something else, those cases tend to bring out lies.

  9. Margot, I’m curious about “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” I have read about this book elsewhere. It seems to be a fashion to give such titles to new books. But I guess it works well for both authors and readers.

    • I think it does work well, Prashant. And in this case, it works even better since Christopher Boone is such a fan of Sherlock Holmes. I recommend the book; among other things it’s an interesting look at the way people with autism likely think.

  10. In Ngaio Marsh’s Surfeit of Lampreys there are identical twins, one of whom was seen at a certain place which would put him under suspicion. But the boys simply refuse to say which of them it was – and there is a question mark over the rest of the family. They all say they don’t know which one was present- but do they in fact know, are they covering up? Inspector Alleyn is fit to be tied by their communal refusal to be forthcoming…

    • That’s quite true, Moira, and it’s such a good example of what I’m getting at here. There are all sorts of the-truth-as-far-as-it-goes moments. And now you’re reminding me of a few Agatha Christie novels where people may be covering up, or may not, and where they may working together – or not. It can be an effective plot point.

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