GUEST POST: Dave Weaver talks Unreliable Narrators

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Today I’m handing over the reins at CTG HQ to author Dave Weaver. Dave’s a fan of unreliable narrators and uses one in his latest book THE UNSEEN. Over to Dave …

The Reliable ‘Unreliable Narrator’

It’s something both ‘Gone Girl’ and ‘The Girl on the Train’ have in common as well as many other popular thrillers and famous novels across genres – the ‘unreliable narrator’. Our protagonist appears to be balanced and coherent but then unfolding events contradict their skewed reasoning and drive an ever-growing wedge between their perception of reality and ours. Things just don’t add up; the reader can no longer take the story at face value. Is the POV character insane, lying, deluded or just plain wrong? We won’t know until the final piece of the jigsaw that is their damaged mind fits into place.

This is what gives the narrative its strength; the need to understand the true nature of the head we are locked in and the reason that person disguises it. For once we give them our trust there is no escape from the consequences of their actions. We become helpless partners in their chaotic drift towards disaster.

The unreliable narrator works particularly well in crime and mystery plots where the reasons for a person’s odd behaviour are shown in the story’s resolution. But how can the author make the reader understand that he or she is not to be believed or trusted? Clues must be planted at regular intervals to make sure the reader understands that things are not as they should be, even if the narrator remains unaware of this. Other characters’ reactions, the narrator’s inappropriate behaviour in various situations and a general sense of normalcy slipping away can help achieve this.

The phrase ‘unreliable narrator’ was first coined by literary critic Wayne Booth in the early 1960s. It has many classic examples:

Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabakov’s ‘Lolita’, whose unreliability is shown by his outrageous claims, endless self justification and contempt for others; Alex from Anthony Burgess’ dystopian classic ‘A Clockwork Orange’ who proves at the very start to be a violent, manipulative sociopath who uses a fictional language, has delusions of grandeur and enjoys exaggerating his reprehensible acts to strut and show off to us, his horrified accomplices; the main character in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club’, a maladjusted insomniac who joins an underground fight club for therapy that quickly transforms into a terrorist group, leading us down a particularly nasty rabbit hole to a stunning reveal that makes us question everything gone before; J. D. Salinger’s cynical teenage Caulfield in ‘Catcher in the Rye’, an admitted liar whose opinions are provoked by adolescent angst and filtered through the distorting prism of immaturity.

What does the writer gain from this deception of using a misleading main character to tell the story? The main reward would seem to be balance, or rather lack of it. If the reader’s perceptions are continually challenged they are in a state of constant tension and the story becomes a fairground ride of unexpected twists and turns. They cannot rely on their guide with any degree of certainty and they cannot predict the outcome. In fact anything could happen; a healthy state for a thriller to be in.

Sometimes the narrator is unreliable by nature, so awful they cannot be objective about themselves even when behaving abominably; they continually self-justify the most terrible acts.

Sometimes they are damaged; an accident or psychological impairment has caused them, and by definition us, to see the world in a particular way others don’t.

Sometimes they are young or naive; the narrator of Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night’ is an autistic child seeking to explain their understanding of events. There is no trickery involved in these reports, at least on the teller’s part; they are telling us what they know. It is the miss-fitting framework around what they say that gives the lie to their words.

A further type of narrator is different from the above in that their misconceptions are due to a lack of, or incorrect, information. This is particularly effective in the thriller genre as having only half the picture can lead to some pretty spectacular leaps in the dark. Of course, in crime there are any number of unreliable narrators; they’re called witnesses and constantly contradict each other. The character of the investigator who will sift all this for the truth must be the one reliable factor. If we cannot trust their best efforts at enlightening us anarchy will quickly ensue. This would be problematic in a crime novel which is a carefully constructed and methodical machine with room for doubt and suspension of disbelief but never anarchy.

A final benefit of the unreliable narrator is that they can be used to cross genres. If their state of mind is in question we may start out with what appears to be fantasy and end up in psychological melodrama thus getting the best of both genre worlds; something I have attempted with my latest novel, ‘The Unseen’.

However the device of unreliable narrator is used though, it generally proves to be a reliable method of delivering the chilling psychodrama every thriller writer aspires to and every reader wants to read.

Big thanks to Dave Weaver for sharing his thoughts on the reliable ‘unreliable narrator’.

Dave’s latest book THE UNSEEN is out now. Here’s the blurb: Ex-advertising man John Mason is driving to the small town of Hambleford to view a cottage that is for sale, when he is caught in a sudden hailstorm. It brings back memories of the crash a year before in which he lost his wife Judith; a crash caused by a woman in white standing in the middle of the road – a woman who was nowhere to be found after the accident. As the hailstorm lashes his car he has a vision of her, with empty eyes and a silent screaming mouth. John had been having regular dreams about her ever since the crash, but lately they have been replaced by dreams of an idyllic cottage on a hillside like the one in which Judith had wanted them to live. John is special – he sees things that others can’t. Since childhood he’s had strange experiences but has tried to shut them out; now he thinks Judith is trying to contact him, that she’s been sending his mind images of the house where her spirit will join him again, and that Pine Cottage in Hambleford is literally the cottage of his dreams. But things aren’t all as they appear and John quickly becomes convinced that a spirit other than Judith is trying to manipulate him.”

You can buy THE UNSEEN from Amazon here

And find out more about Dave over on the Elsewhen Press website here

 

 

In the Spotlight: CHALK VALLEY by D.L. Johnstone

kindle cover CHALK VALLEY

kindle cover CHALK VALLEY

What the blurb says: “In a remote mountain valley in British Columbia, a human monster preys on innocent lives.  After teenagers discover the body of a missing girl in Chalk Valley, searchers find the remains of two more victims secreted deep in the woods.  A serial killer is at work.

Chalk Valley police detective John McCarty is picked to lead a task force to find the murderer, but inexperience, politics and McCarty’s own inner demons quickly overwhelm him and the investigation falters.

Meanwhile, on a dark, lonely highway many miles from Chalk Valley, RCMP Sergeant Dave Kreaver comes across a van crashed at the side of the road. The driver is anxious to leave the scene, but Kreaver discovers an unconscious teenaged girl in the van. Kreaver feels in his gut that the driver could be the serial killer everyone’s looking for, but his inquiries are ignored. The task force is in well over its head, buried by thousands of leads and potential suspects. His supervisors tell him to back off and let the task force do its job.

 

Kreaver finds himself in a deadly cat and mouse game with a murderous psychopath, a race against time with innocent victims in play. Operating alone and without official sanction, can he stop the Chalk Valley Killer before he claims more lives?”

This complex, multi-agency and multi-location police procedural has the big picture feel of a television show like The Wire. Told through the point of views of a range of characters involved in the case – including police officers, journalists, victims and the killer – it shows how incidents that at first seem unconnected all fit together into a web of violence and terror.

The twists and turns of the story sprint along but there’s still plenty of procedural detail to satisfy fans of the sub-genre. With the killers point of view included, readers discover their identity before the police have collaborated all of the evidence – this ups the tension for the reader as you will on the various police departments, hoping that they’ll find the connections before it’s too late.

With a dramatic finale and a poignant ending this is a story well worth checking out.

D.L. Johnstone lives in the Toronto area. He’s co-authored several medical research publications and is a semi-dedicated fitness freak with a second degree black belt in Taekwondo. CHALK VALLEY is his debut novel.

You can find out more about him and his writing at www.dljohnstonewriter.com

Indie Spotlight: Kiss and Tell by T J Cooke

book cover: Kiss and Tell

book cover: Kiss and Tell

A legal thriller with a heart

Now, I must admit, legal thrillers aren’t usually my thing. However what I especially liked about this story, and which makes this book stand out, is the main character, and heroine of the story, Jill Shadow.

Jill’s single parent who started in the company as a secretary and worked her way up the career ladder – juggling work, childcare and study – to become a qualified lawyer. Determined and courageous (aside from when dealing with spiders) she tackles the challenges that come her way in a direct and bold fashion, even if she might be trembling inside.

But Jill’s got a secret. When the unthinkable happens, and her life, and that of her child, are put in danger Jill sets out to determine the truth behind the case of drugs-mule Bella Kiss who claims to be an informant to local detectives, and the seemingly unlinked release from prison of Jimmy – her ex-boyfriend and father to her daughter Hannah. She discovers corruption and criminal activities that stretch far further than she had ever imagined.

The story is told in chapters which alternate between real-time (Jill in a police safe-house, desperate to find her missing daughter) and the past (her relationship with her ex – Jimmy – and the Bella Kiss case) that has led to her current predicament. It’s an interesting structure, and one that keeps you trying to piece together the clues and solve the puzzle along with Jill. It starts at a steady pace which rises significantly in the second half.

Kiss and Tell is an innovative, quirky take on the legal thriller sub-genre.

 

Author and screenwriter, Tim Cooke, a former legal executive, was kind enough to answer a couple of questions for me.

Where did you get your inspiration for Kiss and Tell?

Kiss and Tell is an amalgam of two story strands, the journey of Jill Shadow, from a naive teenage secretary to an industrious and committed criminal lawyer… and her involvement in the case of Bella Kiss, which exposes a fresh and disturbing angle to the current ‘drug debate’.

Both character and story are based on research over recent years. I wanted a character who broke the traditional lawyer stereotype… she’s someone who always wants to get to the heart of the matter and has no other agenda than to find out the truth. I always find a character, particularly a professional, more intriguing when they’ve had to struggle to beat the odds.

As for the narrative, I have seen at first hand how our drug laws have failed society, and how they might be exacerbating rather than controlling the problem. Research then threw up the possibility that some of those who argue for the status quo in the current drug debate [ie against decriminalisation] might be doing so not to ‘protect our children’s future’ as they claim, but to further their own continued profit, via a labyrinthine network of laundered money.

 

So now that Kiss and Tell is published, what are your plans for Jill Shadow? I’m hoping there’ll be a follow-up book, am I in luck?

My second novel ‘Defending Elton is out soon. This will introduce us to Jim Harwood, a lawyer who doesn’t share Jill’s strong ethical code, and whose dysfunctional past is exposed after a fateful lapse of judgment… which results in one of the most extraordinary murder trials in the Old Bailey’s history.

This will be followed by a return to Jill Shadow, who gets embroiled in a complex and dangerous ‘cold case’ murder. A case where the victim seems to be providing clues ‘from the grave’.

 

Kiss and Tell is available now on Amazon Kindle.

 

Indie Spotlight: The Missing by Karl Vadaszffy

The Missing cover image

The Missing cover image

What the cover says: “John Simmons is en route to London with his girlfriend, Jennie Michaels, whom he intends to propose to that evening. He pulls into the London Gateway Services, leaving Jennie in the car. But when he returns, she has disappeared. Frantic with worry, he turns to the police for help. The police doubt that Jennie exists: there is no trace that she ever existed.

John, convinced Jennie was not a figment of his imagination, sets out in a desperate attempt to find the woman he fell in love with. He has the help of Detective Sergeant Kate Nielsen, herself haunted by a botched undercover operation that led to her being raped four years earlier.

Everything he can remember of Jennie – where she worked, where she lived – turns out to be untrue. Nielsen, following John as he lurches from one lead to another, begins to wonder if Jennie could be the eleventh victim of a serial killer. Their investigation becomes increasingly urgent and threatens to bring back dark and murky images from Nielsen’s past.”

John Simmons is in a nightmare situation. His fear for Jennie and his determination to find her make him a sympathetic and compelling character. Even though everything he thought was true about his girlfriend turns out to be false, he won’t give up. Finally, he persuades DS Kate Nielson to help him.

But as John becomes increasingly desperate to find Jennie, and his behaviour becomes more and more erratic, DS Kate Nielson’s challenges grow. Her boss thinks John is delusional, and Kate herself begins to doubt if Jennie ever did exist.

But when another woman is brutally attacked and murdered, John’s convinced there’s a connection. As John and Kate hunt for the killer, they become targets themselves.

The race is on. Can Kate find Jennie and catch the killer before she becomes the next victim?

The Missing is an action packed, high tension read. The stakes continue to rise, and the list of suspects continues to grow, while the question ‘Did Jennie Michaels really exist?’ adds further complications.

Part police procedural, part action thriller, part psychological thriller, with more than enough twists to keep the reader guessing until the end, this is a debut novel well worth checking out.

Debut novelist, Karl Vadaszffy, is published by Peach Press in eBook format. You can find out more at his website: www.karlvad.com

The Missing is the first book in the DS Kate Nielson series.