You’re Kidding Yourself*

self-deceptionIt’s said that the biggest lies, and the most difficult to get past, are the ones we tell ourselves. To an extent, we all do a bit a self-deception (e.g. ‘It’s just one piece of cake, after all;’ ‘It’s not my fault! ____ made a complete mess of this project;’ ‘Why are all these people such bad drivers?’). And just a little self-deception is usually harmless enough (it is, after all, just the one piece of cake, right?). But the less honest we are with ourselves, the more trouble we can find.

Don’t believe me? There are plenty of examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean. Crime-fictional characters who deceive themselves can add a solid source of tension to a novel. What’s more, they can be interesting reflections of our human nature.

For instance, in Megan Abbott’s 1950’s-era historical novel Die a Little, we are introduced to Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King. She has a close relationship with her brother, Bill, who’s a junior investigator for the district attorney’s office. Lora’s life may not be overly exciting, but she’s content. Then, Bill meets and falls in love with former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant Alice Steele. From the very beginning, Lora doesn’t think much of Alice, and she’s very uncomfortable with what she sees as Alice’s dubious past. But, for Bill’s sake, she tries to make her relationship with Alice work. That gets more difficult, though, when Bill and Alice marry. The more Lora learns about Alice, the more questions she has about her new sister-in-law, and that doesn’t help matters, either. At the same time as Lora is repelled by Alice’s life, though, she is also drawn to it. And it’s interesting to see how she doesn’t really admit that to herself. Then, there’s a murder, and Alice could be involved in it. In what she tells herself is an attempt to protect Bill, Lora begins to ask questions about the murder. But what, really, are her motives? And what does she really want from her life?

Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice features former school principal Thea Farmer. When she left her position, her plan had been to have a house built for herself in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. But a combination of bad luck and poor financial judgement changed everything. Now, Thea’s had to settle for the house next door – a home she refers to as ‘the hovel.’ What’s worse, the home she still thinks of as hers has been purchased by Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington – a couple she refers to as ‘the invaders.’ Then, Frank’s niece, Kim, comes to live with him and Ellice. To her surprise, Thea finds herself developing an awkward sort of friendship with the girl. She sees real writing promise in Kim, and even takes the girl to the writing class she’s been attending. When Thea comes to believe that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate home for Kim, she learns that the police are unlikely to do anything about it as things are. So, Thea decides to take matters into her own hands. Thea is a strong, intelligent character. But it’s interesting to see how she is also able to deceive herself. Her story is told through a series of journal entries that she makes for her writing class; and in those entries, we see how she views people and events in her life. But what is the real truth about the reason she left the school where she was principal? And what about the circumstances that led to her financial difficulties? There are solid hints here that Thea isn’t entirely honest with herself.

That’s also true of Gates Hunt, whom we meet in Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit. He and his brother, Mason, were raised in poverty, in an abusive home. But each had the means to get out. Mason has taken advantage of scholarships and other opportunities, and now has a ‘free ride’ to law school. Gates has a great deal of natural athletic ability, and has been told he could go far with that. But he’s chosen to squander his talent, and has ended up living on money he gets from his mother, and on his girlfriend’s Welfare payments. One, night, the Hunt brothers are driving home after a night out when they encounter Gates’ romantic rival, Wayne Thompson. An argument they had earlier in the day flares up again, and before anyone really knows it, Gates has shot Thompson. Mason helps his brother cover up the crime, and life goes on for the Hunt brothers. Years later, Mason has become the commonwealth (of Virginia) prosecutor for Patrick County. Gates has gotten involved in drug dealing. When he’s arrested and handed a very long sentence, he begs his brother to get him out. This time, Mason refuses to help. Gates retaliates by implicating Mason in the still-unsolved Thompson murder, and now Mason may stand trial for the killing. Throughout this novel, we see how Gates deceives himself. He blames others for his bad choices, and he doesn’t consider his own role in what’s happened to his life.

There’s a lot of self-deception in Herman Koch’s The Dinner. One night, Paul Lohman and his wife, Claire, have dinner at an exclusive Amsterdam restaurant with Paul’s brother, Serge, and Serge’s wife, Babette. As the story goes on, and each different course is brought, we slowly get to know these characters. And we learn that these couples have a very dark secret. Their fifteen-year-old sons went in together in a terrible crime. The real purpose of the meal was to work out what they’re going to do about it. And in their conversations, we see how much these people are deceiving themselves about their children, their own roles in the crime, and more.

In Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs, we are introduced to Niccolo ‘Nick’ Franco. His family came to New York from Italy at the turn of the 20th Century. At first, all went well enough, and the family began to prosper. But then, Nick’s father ended up killing Luigi Lupo in a bar fight. Unfortunately for the family, the victim turned out to be the son of notorious mobster Tonio Lupo. The bereaved father has cursed the family, promising that all three Franco sons (including Nick) will die at the age of forty-two, the same age Luigi was at his death. As we follow Nick’s story, we learn that he gets ‘the Hollywood bug’ and tries to make a name for himself in the silent films. He does well enough at first. But he has grandiose ideas about his future, and he’s not honest with himself about his mediocre acting. It doesn’t help matters that he’s fond of drugs, drink, and women. Nick’s refusal to see his own limitations end up costing him dearly.

And then there’s Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, which tells the story of Piriwee Public School, near Sydney, and the families that send their children there. The story’s focus is three families in particular. Trouble starts when the son of one of those three mothers is accused of bullying. He claims he’s innocent, but the accuser’s mother is adamant. Matters get worse as other families choose sides. One night, everything comes to a boil, as the saying goes, and there’s a tragedy. As the families cope with what’s happened, we see just what lies people tell themselves – especially when it comes to their own families and children.

See what I mean? Some of the ways we deceive ourselves aren’t so bad. But some can lead to disaster. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to work on my new novel. It’s only going to take me a couple of weeks, and I know it’s Nobel-worthy – way better than anything else out there.  What?! It is!  😉


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man).


Filed under Apostolos Doxiadis, Herman Koch, Liane Moriarty, Martin Clark, Megan Abbott, Virginia Duigan

17 responses to “You’re Kidding Yourself*

  1. The family self-deception appears to be particularly prevalent. If I had a penny for every time the parent of a criminal says: ‘No, my son/daughter would never do something like that!’ Mind you, in the case of my mother, she would probably believe I’d committed the crime even if I hadn’t 😉
    In fiction, there would be no psychological thrillers if people didn’t have a distorted view of themselves and their own motivations. How many times do the protagonists start out by saying: ‘It’s only a little white lie, surely it doesn’t matter if I say it…’ and then things spiral out of control?

    • That’s quite true, Marina Sofia. That’s all too often how that sort of story starts. And if you think about the personalities of characters in psychological thrillers, you see how deft they are at explaining everything in what to them is a perfectly logical way. It’s unsettling, and that adds to the tension. And yes, the whole issue of family self-deception is fascinating in itself. ‘Not my child/parent/partner’….I’ll bet in real life, the police hear that an awful lot.

  2. Another great post Margot! I like this one as it often presents a less obvious motive than outright jealousy etc. I think it is particularly interesting that you have a couple of great examples where the lies are about offspring – I think it’s fairly common in real life too. The genius of Big Little Lies is that many parents have witnessed similar incidents to the one that sparked the chain of events in this book, hopefully without the terrible outcome though. I’m off now to eat a piece of cake 😊

    • It is, after all, only the one piece of cake, Cleo… 😉 And you’re right about Big Little Lies. The catalyst in that story really resonates, I think, with a lot of people. It’s realistic, and the characters handle it in a believable way. In my opinion, that adds to the urgency of the story. Interesting, isn’t it, how often people (real life and fictional) lie to themselves about their children. It might be the most innocent self-deception in the world, that has almost no consequence. But sometimes, the consequences can be awful. Lots of ‘food for thought,’ there, Cleo, so thanks. And thanks for the kind words.

  3. Hahaha. Love the ending! While reading I was reminded of a true case: the Menendez Brothers. I watched an interview with them last night, and although they admit to killing their parents, they both say it wasn’t their fault. Lots of controversy surrounds this case, as you know, but I couldn’t get past their statements, “Don’t judge us by one moment in our life.” Murdering your parents is a pretty big moment!

    • Oh, the Menendez brothers case is an excellent (and creepy!) example of that sort of self-deception, Sue! It’s unsettling how easy it was for them to simply blame their parents and not even consider their own choices, etc… And thanks for the kind words; glad you enjoyed the post.

  4. Great post, Margot, and I agree that self-deception can add great tension to crime fiction, from the parent who refuses to believe ill of their child – a trope also explored in Wendy James’s forthcoming novel, ‘The Golden Child’ – to the criminal who overestimates their own intelligence. Or indeed, the cop. Having last night re-watched ‘Return of the Pink Panther’, the latter is prominent in my thoughts this morning 😉

    • I can see why, Angela 😉 – And you’re right. There are all sorts of different kinds of self-deception. Some of them aren’t so destructive, but many are. And it’s interesting how often parents are willing to fall into that trap when it comes to their children. Speaking of which, I am very much looking forward to The Golden Child. Thanks for the kind words.

  5. Interested to see what HBO does with BIG LITTLE LIES.

  6. I’ve had Die a Little sitting unread on the Kindle for so long now the pages must be turning yellow – must shove it up the list! I’ll do that just as soon as I’ve eaten this slice of cake – it’s only a very small slice…

    • See what I mean, FictionFan? It’s just a small bit of cake, after all… Oh, and I do recommend Die a Little. If/when you get to it, I really hope you’ll enjoy it.

  7. Pingback: Hold No Grand Illusions* | Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...

  8. :…and I can easily read all those books racked up on shelves and kindle, and it won’t make any difference if I add to them a couple more that Margot is recommending today….

  9. tracybham

    Every time you bring up Herman Koch’s The Dinner, I get more interested, Margot.

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