I Had No Choice But to Lie to You, You See*

As this is posted, it’s 384 years since Galileo was forced to recant his assertion that the Earth orbits the Sun. It’s said that he never actually changed his beliefs; and, of course, time has proven him and Copernicus right about the way our solar system works. And yet, Galileo said the exact opposite when he recanted.

Galileo, of course, had good reason to recant; he was in fear for his life. But he’s by no means the only one who’s lied, even under oath, to avoid terrible consequence, or to gain something important. We see it all the time in crime fiction. Whether it’s on the witness stand, in an interview with the police, or something else, fictional characters will, at times, swear to things they know aren’t true. Or, they’ll deny things that they know are true.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide…), the Cloade family of the village of Warmsley Vale is faced with a crisis. Wealthy patriarch Gordon Cloade had always promised his siblings and their families that he’d see to their needs, so that they wouldn’t have to worry about money. Then, he unexpectedly married, and died in a wartime bomb blast before he could change his will. Now, his widow, Rosaleen, is set to inherit everything, leaving his family with nothing. Then, a stranger calling himself Enoch Arden comes to town. He hints strongly that Rosaleen’s first husband, Robert Underhay, is still alive. If so, then Rosaleen can’t inherit. When Arden is killed, the possibility arises that he may, in fact, be Underhay. So, Major George Porter, who knew Underhay, is asked to state in court whether the body is Underhay’s. Rosaleen Cloade is also asked the same question. Each swears to tell the truth, but their answers directly contradict each other. And both of them had important reasons to swear to something that wasn’t true.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird introduces readers to Atticus Finch. He’s a highly-regarded attorney who lives and works in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama. He gets a wrenching case when Mayella Ewell accuses Tom Robinson of raping her. The rape charge is serious enough, but Robinson is black, and Ewell is white. In small-town Alabama, that makes everything all the more highly-charged. Robinson claims that he’s innocent, but no-one believes him. In fact, he very nearly becomes the victim of a lynch mob. Finch takes the case and begins looking into the matter. And, part of the suspense in the novel comes from the discovery of who’s been swearing to something that wasn’t true, and why.

During the McCarthy Era of the early 1950s, many people were pressured to denounce colleagues, friends, and even loved ones as communists. Sometimes so much pressure was brought to bear that people would give names even if they knew the people they accused weren’t communists at all. Walter Mosley’s A Red Death is set against that backdrop. In it, Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins receives a letter from IRS agent Reginald Lawrence. According to the letter, Rawlins owes thousands of dollars of back taxes, which he’ll have to pay immediately or be imprisoned. Rawlins is preparing himself for a prison term when he gets help in the form of FBI Agent Daryll Craxton, who offers Rawlins a deal. If Rawlins helps bring down suspected communist Chaim Wenzler, then Craxton will make Rawlins’ tax problems go away. Rawlins has no desire to denounce anyone, but he feels he has no choice. So, he agrees to Craxton’s plan, and starts to get to know Wenzler. And that’s when the trouble begins. First, Rawlins comes to like Wenzler, which makes denouncing him all the more difficult. Then, he is framed for two murders that occur at the church where both he and Wenzler volunteer. Now, he’ll have to clear his name, as well as find a way to deal with Craxton without denouncing Wenzler, if he can.

Sometimes, people aren’t forced to swear to something that isn’t true, but they do so for reasons of their own. For instance, in Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit, we are introduced to brothers Mason and Gates Hunt. They’ve been raised in an abusive home, but they’ve responded in very different ways. Mason takes advantage of every opportunity that comes his way, and ends up going to law school. Gates, on the other hand, squanders his natural athletic ability, and ends up living on his girlfriend’s Welfare benefits, and on money he gets from his and Mason’s mother. One day, Gates has a quarrel with his romantic rival, Wayne Thompson. Thompson eventually leaves, but the Hunt brothers encounter him later that night. The quarrel starts up again, and before anyone really knows what’s happened, Gates has shot Thompson. Mason helps his brother cover up the crime, and life goes on for both. Years later, Mason is the commonwealth prosecutor for Patrick County, Virginia. Gates, meanwhile, has been arrested for cocaine trafficking. He’s given a long sentence, and begs his brother to get him out of prison. This time, Mason refuses. Gates says that if Mason won’t help him, he’ll implicate his brother in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. Mason still refuses, and Gates makes good on his threat. He tells police that his brother committed the Thompson murder, and Mason soon finds himself the subject of a criminal investigation. In this case, Gates swears to what’s not true so that he can get out of prison.

And then there’s Daniel Pembrey’s The Harbour Master. In that novella, Amsterdam police detective Henrik van der Pol is present at Amsterdam Harbour one morning when the body of a young woman is found floating on the surface of the water. Van der Pol and his police partner, Liesbeth, investigate, and follow the trail to Little Hungary in the Red Light District (RLD). A sex worker who lives there, a woman named Irena, is one of van der Pol’s contacts, and he’s hoping she’ll be able to give him some information. What he finds, though, at least at first, is that she doesn’t want to say anything. She claims not to know anything about anything. Then, she lets van der Pol and Liesbeth know that she’s afraid of being seen with them, let alone saying anything. Eventually, she tells them the truth, but it’s at a very high price.

People have all sorts of reasons for recanting, or for otherwise denying what they know is true. It may be coercion, fear, or something else. But it’s always interesting to see how characters react under those circumstances.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ray LaMontagne’s Please.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Daniel Pembrey, Harper Lee, Martin Clark, Walter Mosley

28 responses to “I Had No Choice But to Lie to You, You See*

  1. I can imagine under threat of torture or actual torture most of us would say anything the torturer wanted to hear, and because of that one’s words cannot be believed, hence the torture was pointless. Fascinating topic. Lying under Oath has to be a brave thing to do, in front of so many witnesses and with the threat of perjury charges and possibly imprisonment. The lie must really be worth it. Not lying must be so much worse in the perjurer’s mind…punishment by a criminal, losing a lover, friend, family member or perhaps status in society…might cause someone to commit it. A great device to weave into a story, to get the witness to misdirect the reader…

    • Oh, I think so, too, Jane! And now you’ve made me think of Agatha Christie’s Witness For the Prosecution, which I should have mentioned in the post and didn’t. I’m glad you did. I agree with you, too, that a person has to really feel under duress to lie on a witness stand. The consequences of telling the truth have to be seen as so very much worse than lying. It makes for an effective misleading point in a story, but has to be awful in real life.

      • I agree, terrible. Torn both ways I imagine. Especially if you are deep down a law-abiding person. But from a writing POV what a great way to take the reader on a wild goose chase. Fab piece, thanks for getting the little grey cells jumping. Pop in later tomorrow if you get time and feel like it, as I have a former detective as my guest. Makes for an interesting read as far as crime writers are concerned. 🙂 xx

        • Oooh, sounds fab, Jane! I’ll be sure to stop by. And you’re right: lots of opportunity for an interesting POV, isn’t there, when you have a character who feels the need or coercion to lie like that.

  2. No spoilers, Margot, so I will just say that an issue of this kind plays an important part in Erin Kelly’s gripping and very clever He Said/She Said, which I will be reviewing on my blog soon.

  3. Somehow all your topics are making me think of current events at the moment… are you being inspired by too much news watching? Or is it me? 😉

    • You know, FictionFan, I’ve been noticing that about my topics, too. I haven’t been mining current events on purpose, but I suppose they have a way of weaving themselves into what I think about and write. That’s a rather disquieting thought, actually. It’s a bit like someone telling you, ‘Whatever you do, do not think about pink elephants!’ … 😉

  4. Col

    I can’t actually recall if I read A Red Death or not. Thanks for the reminder. Pembrey’s Harbour Master was enjoyable.

  5. Margot: A few years ago when my younger son was in law school I went to one of his classes on ethics. A part of the discussion involved the responsibility of a trial lawyer if his/her client goes upon the witness stand and, to the knowledge but not approval or consent of the lawyer, lies in their evidence. The trial lawyer has a duty to withdraw but cannot advise of the reason for fear of compromising the position of the client. I said to the class that I had been fortunate not to have encountered that issue in my career.

    • I would imagine that would be a really difficult situation, Bill. You are fortunate that that hasn’t happened to you. And thanks for sharing what the responsibility of the lawyer is in those situations. That’s what I would have guessed, but I didn’t know.

  6. It is always the McCarthy period that springs to mind when thinking of this kind of situation in the modern era – not read the Mosley but will definitely get it, thanks Margot. It did make me think of BRAINWASH by John Wainwright, which is about a long and harrowing police interrogation that leads to a highly ambiguous confession.

    • Brainwash sounds like a really interesting example of exactly what I had in mind with this post, Sergio, so thanks. I’d guess if a police investigation and interrogation aren’t handled well, they certainly could lead to that sort of dubious confession. Oh, and I do recommend the Mosley when you get to it; I think it’s excellent.

  7. The threat of torture or harm to ourselves and our loved ones will cause a person to say or do just about anything. Interesting post, Margot.

    • Thanks, Mason. And you’re right: people will say or do nearly anything if it means avoiding torture or pain to themselves or loved ones. It does make you wonder about those forced confessions…

  8. There is a lot of lying going on in my current read, Lisa Unger’s Die for You. Some of it is to keep the police at bay while the main character tries to find the bad guy, some by other characters to hide their sins. The truth is finally coming out as I near the end of the book (and there are some surprises).

  9. This is such an innovative post! Loved it! 🙂

  10. Fascinating post. A lie can be cruel, necessary and the kindest thing you can do: all at the same time.

  11. “To Kill A Mockingbird” — now there’s a book I want to read again. It’d be nice to get to know Atticus Finch again.

  12. kathy d.

    I must remember to read the Walter Mosley book you mention here. It sounds so good.
    Am watching Line of Duty, a British police mystery. In it, one cop commits crimes because his family is threatened.
    Watched Dilma Rousseuf, ousted president of Brazil on TV. She was in the resistance movement to the junta in Brazil when she was very young. She said everyone was tortured. She said a person tried to not give in for even a minute. But she described what was done, all sorts of horrors. She also said that the women supported each other afterwards as they would eventually be released and go out into the world, knowing they had to talk. And the guilt was awful. So, the women were very supportive of each other.
    I can’t even imagine the horrors of that scenario. She is a brave woman.

    • Mosely is really a talented author, Kathy. I do recommend his work. And Line of Duty sounds interesting. Your example shows, too, that there are plenty of real-life cases, too, where people do what they have to do to survive.

  13. So often in crime books there is a feature where two characters lie to protect each other – each thinks the other committed the crime, and complications ensue…

    • Yes! You’re exactly right, Moira. In fact, I’m thinking of an Agatha Christie novel where that exact thing happens. I don’t want to mention the title, for fear of spoilers. But I hope you know the one I mean.

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