It’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).