The Good Liar by Nicholas Searle

Reviewed by Gill Davies

good liarThis is Nicholas Searle’s first novel. He apparently began it while a student of the on-line Curtis Brown Creative Writing School, and they rushed to buy the rights when they discovered its quality. Searle had recently retired from a career in the Civil Service (something more exciting than HMRC, it is implied) and he has produced a rather unusual and engrossing novel. It is an odd one, seemingly without much of a crime, no detectives (or at least no official ones) and a rather meandering plot that moves between England and Germany, and covers a timespan of more than 70 years.

It’s quite difficult to say a lot about the novel without revealing too much – it’s that kind of mystery. And there is real pleasure in not knowing where it’s going. There are flashbacks which may seem like digressions rather than essential revelations; episodes that can seem irrelevant; and some moments in the plot that only make sense at the very end. But you are always drawn along by the rather creepy central character and his increasingly mysterious identity. The narrative is tightly done and keeps the suspense going very well.

I guess you would call it a psychological thriller, but it’s quite a slow mover, and has a setting and characters who seem unlikely at first to promise a gripping narrative. We’re in the safe and dull Home Counties with central characters who are octogenarians who meet on a dating website. These characters seem at first almost parodic figures in their restrained language, old-fashioned habits (they aren’t very sure about mobile phones or the internet), conventional opinions and tastes, and weaknesses of age and infirmity. So far so cosy, then the unpleasantness and doubt creep in. He is in fact a life-long conman, going for one last payday, she is a wealthy widow who seems too obviously taken in. The title gives us a fairly strong hint about what is going on but we remain mystified for quite some time. When the revelations come, much later in the novel, they are satisfyingly unravelled and the characters have become much more than the dull suburban figures we see at the start.

I liked the unusual focus on older protagonists and the subversion of the traditional setting of the English cosy crime novel. It starts out as Agatha Christie but we are very soon in Patricia Highsmith territory. All our assumptions are eventually overturned in some neat witholding and plotting, and an astute use of narrative point of view. As in most psychological thrillers, the narration keeps fairly closely to the individual characters’ points of view – so that we see things from their perspective and are not allowed any more detailed explanation or background. In this way, as an old man’s memory takes him further from the present to reflect on his past life, the novel dips into that past and starts to explore and reveal his psychology and motivation. The female character, fittingly as she is the object of the planned crime, remains more unknowable, though we do, through a careful use of her point of view, see that she is not what the male character thinks.

Because the novel makes these dips into history, its scope broadens and it vividly takes us into very different places and times (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here) that seem well researched and brought to life. Sometimes, I felt the author was smuggling too many other genres in, as he revealed all sorts of dark deeds in the flashbacks. But it’s a good yarn and I can recommend this as an unusual story that is slow-moving but well-paced with some nasty behaviour and a very satisfying denouement.

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Nicholas Searle, The Good Liar (Penguin Viking, 2016). 9780241206935, 288pp., paperback.

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