Make the Narrator Reliable Again

There is a strong argument to be made for first-person narration being consubstantial to crime fiction. The first detective story ever used that device, which became an unofficial rule over all the Victorian and Edwardian eras, leading to the conscientious, starry-eyed and often none too bright narrator being called The Watson after its most famous representative.

The Watson held many benefits to the crime writer. The first one was that it gave the reader someone to identify with, detectives at the time being far too remote from the average Joe, not to mention often being not that likeable persons. The second one was that it allowed the writer to manipulate the reader more easily by narrowing the scope of the story. The narrator being our only information source, we only know what they know, see what they see, with the detective’s mind process and thus the truth remaining unreachable until the end. The device of course only works if the reader trusts the narrator, which they had no reason not to until one Agatha Christie came along.

Even then the unreliable narrator remained a minority as the fair-play character of the trick was fiercely debated and most people thought it could work only once. Also the question became less and less relevant as the rules weakened and the genre massively converted to third-person narration. The device went dormant but for a few notable and isolated exceptions until the new century when it was reintroduced to the public by a few best-selling « domestic suspense » books that generated much discussion and, alas, even more copycats. Unreliable narrator went overnight from specialty to ubiquity, even becoming selling arguments. The relationship between reader and narrator became at minima a cautious one and probably will remain so for a long time.

This, I think, is unfortunate.

Crime fiction’s traditional aim is to fool the reader and to fool someone you need first to make them trust you. The unreliable narrator cliché does the opposite as the reader is permanently on guard and thus more likely to see that spectacular twist coming before its time. Another problem with the device is that it allows the writer to cheat and blame it on the narrator’s unreliability. « Wait, I hadn’t told you that X was actually Y’s wife and gave you no hint that they might be? Hey, that’s because my narrator is alcoholic/psychotic/amnesiac/whatever! Ha ha, you didn’t see that one coming, did you? » So much for plot construction and coherence, which is supposed to be one of the genre’s key features.

If we agree that good writing regardless of genre means choosing the narrow path and avoid facility then we also have to agree that the unreliable narrator when overdone (and boy is it now) becomes cheap and worse, a convenient way for the unimaginative and the untalented to write a crime story. It’s time to stop writing Roger Ackroyd and Endless Night again and again and bring back narrators we can fully trust. Crime fiction is not about telling all the truth, but it’s about telling the truth, which it can’t do when the person telling it is a liar.


Un commentaire sur “Make the Narrator Reliable Again

  1. Really interesting points here, thanks chum. I have not been reading much in the way of crime fiction for a few years now, and am feeling quite out of date. I suppose the success of GONE GIRL (fun but seriously overrated in my view) and maybe GIRL ON THE TRAIN (not read it) et al has had an impact? The impression I had was that unreliability didn’t stray so often into traditional mysteries, the kind where clues, an honest relationship with the reader, and so on, are important. Or to put it another way, Sophie Hannah, Donna Leon and Peter Lovesey’s narrator’s are probably still pretty reliable, no?

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