The Believer

04.02.14

The Most Unreliable Narrators, From Agatha Christie to Iris Murdoch

Sophie Hannah, the author of the new novel The Orphan Choir, has always preferred the sketchy storyteller. Why should a narrator openly tell us everything when we haven’t earned that privilege?

What is an unreliable narrator? Asking that question, or hearing someone else ask it, always activates my contrary streak (which is sizeable enough that some might say it constitutes almost my whole personality!) In many of the best novels I’ve read that feature unreliable narrators, their unreliability—for which some readers condemn them—is a much-needed defense against the other characters in the book, who are often reliably repellent.

I generally like, and side with, unreliable narrators. Why should they tell us everything, in a straightforward manner? What have we done to earn that privilege? By the end of the novel, when they’ve decided they trust us because we’ve stuck with them for so long, that’s usually when they finally give up their secrets, and we should consider ourselves lucky to be confided in even at that point.

My favorite novels featuring unreliable narrators are:

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
By Agatha Christie

This is one of the all-time classic mystery stories, and the narrator is unreliable in a very interesting way: he does not directly lie to the reader; he simply omits certain crucial details. It makes for a crime novel with a brilliant twist that was way ahead of its time.

Devil Take the Blue-Tail Fly
By John Franklin Bardin

This is a masterpiece of the suspense genre that is also a work of great literature. Sadly, it is out of print almost everywhere and no one has yet rescued and revived it. I wish that they would!  The novel starts when the heroine is released into the care of her apparently loving husband, after a spell in an asylum, and things soon descend into paranoid horror. Well-worth ordering from a second-hand book dealer!

The Average American Male
By Chad Kultgen

A very contemporary and highly offensive unreliable narrator makes the pages of this brilliant comic-serious novel sparkle. The protagonist of this book is Everyman at his worst, but you kind of like him nonetheless, because his thoughts about the people around him are so brutally honest, and therefore hilarious. He’s kind of in the tradition of Larry in Curb Your Enthusiasm, and, like Larry, helped me to understand straight men so much better. Warning: this novel is not for the easily shocked.

The Black Prince
By Iris Murdoch

This is my favourite novel of all time and is structurally extremely (and successfully) ambitious. A mystery, a love story… there is nothing this book does not have. The narrator seems reliable for most of the novel, and then, shockingly, other narrators take over the story towards the end and cast doubt on everything he has said. It works brilliant, and is utterly gripping.

Half Broken Things
By Morag Joss

A stunning psychological thriller about three misfits who come together with at first wonderful and then disastrous consequences. One of the best crime novels I’ve ever read—moving, gripping, and more memorable than almost every other thriller I’ve read. Joss is a superb prose stylist.