Stephanie Jones: Book Review - The Good Liar by Nicholas Searle

Publish Date
Friday, 8 April 2016, 2:47PM
By Stephanie Jones

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” The words of Kurt Vonnegut ring insistently in the background of The Good Liar, Nicholas Searle’s sly, exquisite novel of identity and retribution. The story of Roy and Betty, who meet online late in life and strike up an easy companionship, spools out alongside reverse-chronological snapshots of a younger Roy as fraudster and opportunist.

Searle points an unfiltered lens at Roy, who at first seems merely a contemptuous misanthrope – he enjoys scolding dates who are less pleasing to the eye in person than their photographs suggested – and then someone much more complicated. A layperson might describe him as “a bit off”; an expert could diagnose psychopathy. The difference is, Roy knows it. “The truth is secondary,” he avows at one point, and he is self-aware enough to know that his behaviour is a compulsion.

Even as an aging, sickening man, even when the material gain is no longer necessary, an innate urge to deceive and steal persists. As Roy explains it, the con is life itself: “The painstaking construction of the lie and its elaborate underpinnings: they make the adrenalin flow.” Elsewhere, when persuading a longtime accomplice out of a crisis of conscience, he makes a confession unsullied by shame: “Dodging and weaving. This is me.”

Searle’s neat structure describes the life of the antihero alongside that of the somewhat less transparent Betty, whom Searle deliberately obscures for later dramatic effect. The combination of her nest egg and general warmth, and Roy’s incurable mendacity, makes her the perfect mark, and the reader worry.

Not so fast: Betty’s grandson Stephen, in regarding Roy, is consumed by feelings of repugnance towards their new housemate, and Betty herself is mildly aggrieved by the older man’s slovenliness. No amount of hinting can prompt him to take a turn to prepare their breakfasts, and she adopts a new daily habit of cleaning the floor around the toilet bowl. Yet she likes having him around, for reasons Searle delivers with the same superb precision as a fisherman fillets his catch.

The Good Liar is the debut novel of Nicholas Searle, a former UK civil servant (in “security matters”) writing under a pseudonym. It will make my top 10 list for 2016 partly due to the elegance of Searle’s prose, which has a crisp, uncensored quality similar to that of Beryl Bainbridge and Anne Tyler. His subtle observations would make for marvellous satire, as evidenced by Roy’s view, at the Berlin Philharmonic, of “the fat complacent patrons in Hugo Boss with their jewel-bestrewn, elegant, thin accessory wives.”

Most of all, The Good Liar thrills and surprises with yanks of the curtain that elicited gasps from this reader. Within its compact pages Searle summons a whole world, moving smoothly between the expansive (the de-Nazification of Europe) and the intimate (the sadistic act of a teenage boy against a young girl), and expressing the psychology of chicanery and the exhilarating effect of a bright summer day with equal ease. A debut this taut and assured is not to be missed.

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