One of the hardest things to do is sort out the truth when two people tell very different stories about something. The classic example of this can happen when there’s a possibility that sexual assault occurred. Each party may say something very different, and it all has to be sorted out. Was there sex? Was it consensual? Were both parties in a position to give consent? There are other questions, too, that have to be addressed in situations like this. And it’s sometimes quite difficult to find out what actually happened, especially when neither party may be telling the complete truth. And this is only one sort of circumstance when two people might tell very different versions of the same story. You see it in certain civil cases, university or company grievance cases, and so on.
It’s also there in crime fiction, and that makes a lot of sense. There are all sorts of possibilities for plot development. And there are many opportunities for tension and suspense. And such plot elements are effective for creating an unreliable narrator.
In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, for instance, we are introduced to wealthy, beautiful Linnet Ridgeway Doyle. She and her new husband, Simon, take a trip through the Middle East as a part of their honeymoon trip, and all’s well except for one thing. Linnet’s former best friend, Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort seems to show up everywhere they go. Simon was engaged to Jackie before he met Linnet, and things are very strained between the former friends. In fact, matters get so bad that Linnet asks Hercule Poirot, who is in the same hotel, to get Jackie to stop following the newlyweds. Poirot speaks to Jackie and to Simon as well, and gets three different stories from the three people who are involved. Then, the Doyles leave for a cruise of the Nile. Poirot’s on the same cruise, and to everyone’s surprise, so is Jackie. On the second night of the cruise, Linnet is shot. Jackie is the most likely suspect, but it’s soon proven that she couldn’t have shot the victim. So, Poirot has to look elsewhere for the killer. And it’s interesting to see how the real truth about Simon, Jackie, and Linnet is woven into the story.
Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring features her sleuth, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn. In one plot thread of the novel, one of Kilbourn’s students, Kellee Savage, comes to her with a claim of sexual harassment. There’s evidence, too. Kellee says that the person responsible is another student, Val Massey, but that no-one believes her. At first, Kilbourn suggests that Kellee go to the university office that handles such grievances; Kellee says she’s already done that, but to no avail. Then one night, Kellee happens to be in a bar with a group of other people. She’s already had plenty to drink when Val walks in. She accuses him in a public, ugly way before she rushes out of the bar. Then, she goes missing. This turns out to be related to another incident, the murder of Journalism professor Reed Gallagher. And woven through the story is the question of what really happened between Val Massey and Kellee Savage. She was harassed, but was he responsible?
In A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife, we are introduced to Jodi Brett and Todd Gilbert, a successful Chicago couple who’ve been together twenty years. She’s a psychotherapist; he is a developer. Then, Todd begins an affair with Natasha Kovacs, the daughter of his business partner. He’s strayed before, but this time, it’s different. Natasha discovers that she’s pregnant, and she wants to get married and have a family. Todd goes along with the idea, saying that’s what he wants, too. And it ought to be straightforward, since he and Jodi were not legally married, and there’s no common-law marriage provision in Illinois. Todd’s attorney persuades him to send a formal eviction notice to Jodi, so as to protect his assets. And Jodi’s attorney tells her that there isn’t much that can be done. Since they weren’t married, she has no legal claim on the home they shared. Things begin to spiral out of control for both Todd and Jodi, and as they do, we see the way each perceives what happens. Without spoiling the story, I can say that neither is viewing things entirely honestly.
There’s a similar situation in Perri O’Shaughnessy’s Breach of Promise. Lindy and Mike Markov, who’ve been together twenty years, own a very successful Lake Tahoe business. Then, Lindy discovers that Mike’s having an affair with one of his co-workers, Rachel Pembroke. As if that’s not bad enough, Lindy is served with eviction papers, ordering her to vacate the home they’ve shared. She’s also removed from her company position, and will be given no compensation. In desperation, she turns to attorney Nina Reilly to help her launch a civil suit. It’s not going to be easy, though. For one thing, Mike’s attorney has the reputation of being a ‘courtroom tiger.’ For another, Reilly makes the shocking discovery that the Markovs were never legally married. This makes all of Lindy’s claims tenuous at best. Still, there’s a chance for a win, and Reilly takes the case. A jury is empaneled and the case is heard in court. Then, a shocking event changes everything, forcing Reilly to make new plans, and putting her in real danger. Throughout the novel, especially in the courtroom scenes, we see how ‘he said/she said’ plays an important role in what the jury hears.
And then there’s William Deverell’s Trial of Passion, the first of his novels to feature attorney Arthur Beauchamp. Beauchamp has recently retired from his successful Vancouver law business, and moved to Garibaldi Island, a quiet sort of ‘hippie’ refuge. He’s drawn, very reluctantly, back to the firm’s activity when Jonathan O’Donnell, acting dean of law at the University of British Columbia, is charged with rape. His accuser, Kimberley Martin, is a student in the school of law; she’s also engaged to wealthy and socially prominent Clarence de Remy Brown. O’Donnell swears he didn’t commit rape, and insists that Beauchamp take his case. Finally, Beauchamp agrees to get involved. As the story goes on, we learn what each of the parties to the case say about what happened. And, bit by bit, the layers are peeled away to reveal the truth about the night in question.
And that’s the thing about ‘he said/she said’ sorts of cases. It can be very difficult to get at the truth. And, even when you get there, it’s sometimes completely different to what either person says.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Thompson’s Razor Dance.