The Good Liar is Nicholas Searle’s debut novel, yet it reads as if from an experienced literary hand. Mr. Searle graciously agreed to answer a few of Auntie M’s questions about this unusual novel and you’ll find them at the end of this review.
Meet Roy, a con man extraordinaire who is looking for one last big con. He thinks he’s found it in Betty, a comely widow in a nice little cottage who is placed well to take good care of him as he arranges his one last big con.
But things are not as they seem for any of the characters in this highly original and literate novel which almost defies description. It’s been called a psychological thriller akin to the best of Patricia Highsmith, and that will have to do, but it’s not your typical crime novel, for certain, it’s far more than that.
The story unfolds in a backwards stance over many decades as Roy’s story is spooled out. All of the supporting characters are finely drawn no matter the era, and the settings spring to life. It is to Mr. Searle’s credit that not once does the reader lose interest as the past alternates with the current situation occurring between Roy and Betty.
In fact, the deliberate pacing, like layers being peeled away from an onion, only heighten the tension and the race to the finish, and what a finish it is, with a twisted elegance that is most fitting. It would be difficult for Auntie M to reveal more about this story without ruining the plot, but suffice it to say that it has earned her coveted “highly recommended” rating and she urges you to find your copy.
Now to hear from Mr. Searle in his own words:
Auntie M: You touch on the rise in elderly people finding relationships on the internet and how those outcomes run the gamut from providing companionship to exploitation. After your personal brush with a relative’s less-than-successful experience, what’s your personal feeling about vulnerable elders searching for someone to share their last years?
Nicholas Searle: I think it’s great that people should seek companionship late in life, but there are risks. On the good side, it’s wonderful that people should have the energy and chutzpah to go out there and live life to the full, and not give up. On the other hand the process of finding a new partner can unleash a whole range of emotions, some of them troubling – guilt (about one’s previous, departed partner), fear (will I end up making a fool of myself?) and desperation (will I ever find anyone?). They can add up to a powerful cocktail of vulnerability that the less scrupulous can exploit. And this is, I think, magnified by modern online technologies that can make the prospective con-merchant that much more convincing. So I applaud the positivity of the elderly seeking to ride on into the sunset with someone new but at the same time I fear for their safety. It’s an issue that possibly deserves greater debate.
AM: The design of the book has you telling the main protagonist’s story in the present, alternating with chapters into his past life, delving into episodes that go earlier and earlier into his life. Did you know this would be the design of the book, or did it happen as you were writing?
NS: I knew pretty soon that the book would be structured this way. The way the book came into being was this: Roy cried out to me as a main character and I crafted the first chapter around him, finding Betty and Stephen coming out of the woodwork as I wrote. Then it was decision time, and I decided that we’d need to discover Roy’s history in order to find out what made him the way that he is. At the same time I wanted forward momentum as I was intrigued by Betty; and from that moment on the alternating chapter and present/past structure just seemed natural. I had it all worked out in my head – nothing on paper apart from the first chapter – within a couple of weeks. I was acutely aware that a narrative going backwards and forwards at the same time could end up being too complex and foxing the reader, which is part of the reason why I decided to hold the whole plot in my head rather than planning the novel with charts and so forth on paper. I rationalised that if I couldn’t keep the thread in my head then there’s no chance a reader could. Only at the end, part way through editing, did I draw up what I call a ‘map’ of the book, mainly so that I could check for continuity and plot consistency, as well as spoilers and dropping a few well-hidden (I hope) hints.
AM: I know you studied languages in England and in Germany, so the German connection was there for you, as well as the familiarity with that setting. Did that knowledge in some way lead you to the plot?
NS: I have had a long connection with Germany and German which started at school. I love the country and its people, and find both fascinating and far from the stereotypes the British have of them. There’s much more complexity and texture to both German history and – I hate generalisations but here’s a big one – the German tradition and way of thinking. So embedded in me was a strong sense of Germany and certainly what had gone on there in the 20th century. But when I started the novel in early 2014 I didn’t know (until I’d plotted the book in my head) that Germany would feature. I guess a wonderful trip to Berlin the previous summer – with the object of seeing the Berlin Philharmonic perform Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in all its glorious pomp but also to re-acquaint myself with a city I know well – was the stimulus closest to the front of brain when I began writing. The concert was a magical evening and the weekend brought home to me forcefully how in Berlin all those layers of history, from the divided city of the Berlin Wall, through the Third Reich, Döblin’s Alexanderplatz of the 1930s, the decadent Twenties, the deprivation of Germany after the First World War and the Prussian grandeur of the late nineteenth century, exist at the same time, like whispers in the air. So in a way Germany, and Berlin particularly, had to be centre stage, though I didn’t know it at the time.
AM: Roy, your protagonist, has led a carefully constructed life and taken the time to develop his stories with great skill. You’ve also given him the ability to read people to a great degree. This lets him anticipate other’s actions and wear the right mask in any situation. You describe someone you met who would choose to lie when given the opportunity but was not good at it. Have you ever known someone who was a truly great liar?
NS: Roy was based on an individual I knew in real life – more closely in the first chapter I suppose; and from there I built him and no doubt embellished him shamelessly! I have no idea, for instance, whether the real ‘Roy’ ever was a con man. The real individual was someone a distant relative of mine, to whom however I remain close, befriended some years ago. It was if you like a whirlwind romance, if a geriatric one. He moved in with her within a matter of weeks and it wasn’t until afterwards that I went down to Wiltshire and met him. And disliked him. And discovered that virtually everything he said was a lie. And that he wasn’t particularly good at lying… I think it was these last two elements that intrigued me. It’s pretty normal, if you’re not very good at something to give it up, not to keep trying and failing. As it is I don’t think that the real ‘Roy’ was out to swindle my relative of her savings (she didn’t have any!) but that he was looking for the easy life, someone to look after him and to glare at over the Daily Telegraph in the morning. In answer to your question: I’m not sure. I pride myself at being pretty good at winkling out lies. But if someone was that good a liar I wouldn’t know, would I?
AM: Readers are always interested in a writer’s process. This is a thriller with a deliberate pace and increasing tension that leads to the complex ending. Was it difficult to keep this controlled pace as you wrote or did it come to you as you revised?
NS: It wasn’t difficult, I found. I’ve explained that I didn’t go in for elaborate planning methods and had the plot inside my head. From then on I simply concentrated on the chapter in hand. The episodic approach helped, as in a way each segment in time needs to be a self-contained story – but with strong links to the main narrative. I must confess to sowing a few clues into the narrative, both while doing the original draft and when revising. My thought was that readers would happen on what lies beneath at different times. I wanted to avoid the big ‘suspects all gathered in the drawing room’ reveal. It doesn’t actually matter when you twig to what’s going on, so long as you enjoy the journey.
AM: Having been in public service in the UK and New Zealand “more years than you care to remember,” what was the deciding factor that drove you to write fiction?
NS: The deciding factor? I have always wanted to write. Always. As a child I would write stories just for fun. Then when I went to university and later pursued a career it somehow got neglected. Possibly it was my laziness or cowardice, or possibly both. But I do like to quote Heinrich Böll, one of my favourite German writers, who began writing in earnest I think when he was 43: ‘schreiben wollte ich immer, versuchte es schon früh, erst später aber fand ich die Worte’ (from memory, so it could be wrong – ‘I always wanted to write, tried it when I was young but only found the words later.’) Then, with our return from New Zealand to the UK, came the opportunity and the impetus. This was the moment, I decided, when either I did this or lived the rest of my life wondering.
AM: I believe writers must be readers. Who were your early influences?
NS: I agree. I had tremendously undiscerning reading tastes when I was young – a good thing I think. I devoured all of Agatha Christie when I was about twelve or thirteen. And I mean all of what she wrote, in one long summer holiday. At that age I could easily read two books a day. But I also loved – perhaps slightly later – many European writers, such as Camus and Böll, Grass and Sartre, Dürrenmatt and Duras. In the English language one of my biggest regrets is not being able to get into Dickens until I was much older. I was much more interested in the contemporary novel of different genres: Graham Greene, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, John le Carré, Patricia Highsmith, P.D. James. In my thirties I began to appreciate the American big-hitters and believe that some of the best contemporary fiction emerges from the United States.
AM: Why crime fiction–is that what you enjoy reading? Whose books would I find on your nightstand?
NS: I’ll let you into a secret here: I’m not very keen on genres. I didn’t set out to write a crime novel, or a thriller, or a suspense novel. I just wrote the kind of thing I’d quite like to read – intelligent without being incomprehensible, with twists and turns but not trashy. I’m not even sure now whether The Good Liar fits with the classic thriller/crime novel genre. It seems more publishers and booksellers – rather than writers or readers – who want to apply these labels. But it doesn’t bother me. I’m cool with it all. On my nightstand now you’d certainly find the latest Kate Atkinson, Richard Ford, John le Carré, William Boyd, Sarah Waters and Howard Jacobson, as well probably as a selection of Nicci French and Patricia Cornwell. And it’s such a shame that there will be no more books by P.D. James or Kent Haruf (to name just two).
AM: Have you started another writing project? Anything about it you can share with readers?
NS: Yes, I have started on the next project, but I’m not going to tell you anything about it! At the moment I’m focusing completely on The Good Liar.