“No, on reflection disclosure is not a good thing, thinks Roy. It doesn’t salve the soul. It invites questions, not least from oneself, and upsets the certainty at which one has arrived. At his age he can do without such perturbations.”
Nicholas Searle’s debut novel, The Good Liar, begins with an elderly man preparing for an appointment with a woman he’s ‘met’ through an internet dating site. Roy prepares for the meeting with a feeling that the woman who calls herself Estelle is “heaven-sent.” Are we about to get a little geriatric romance in the vein of Last Tango in Halifax? No, fear not dear reader… we are about to get something much nastier, and that becomes apparent as Roy thinks about all the time wasters who lie about themselves and their means:
With this transitory reflection comes a momentary weariness. Those dreadful meetings in Beefeaters and Tobys around the Home Counties with frumpy old women in whom the bitterness of their long unfulfilled marriages with underachieving and uninspiring husbands has in widowhood seemingly become the sense of license to lie at will. For them there is no legacy of happy memories or the material benefit of platinum pensions in leafy Surrey mansions. They reside in poky terraces that no doubt smell of fried food, eking out an existence on government handouts cursing Bert, or Alf, or whoever it may be, and contemplating a stolen life. They are out for what they can get now, by whatever means. And who can blame them really?
Roy, who for the purposes of this first date, calls himself Brian, is on the lookout for a rich widow. It’s a “professional enterprise,” and he’s used to wading through lies from women who present themselves positively before he uncovers the truth. He refuses “to let them down gently” and enjoys “dismantling them forensically.”
“I thought you said you were five foot six and slim,” he may say with incredulity, but is delicate enough not to add: rather than a clinically obese dwarf. “Not much like your photos, are you? Was it taken a few years back, dear?” (He doesn’t add the postscript: perhaps of your better-looking sister.) “You live near Tunbridge Wells, you say; more Dartford really, isn’t it?” Or “So what you mean by ‘holidaying in Europe’ is a package trip once a year with your sister to Benidorm?”
Roy isn’t a nice man. If fact, even though he may appear to be a well-dressed, harmless elderly man, he’s a predator, and he’s about to meet a well-heeled widow, a retired professor named Estelle….
Estelle turns out to be Betty, an attractive, spry, slender, independent, intelligent woman and more to the point, a widow with a sizeable nest egg. She’s just the sort of mark Roy is looking for, and as for Betty, well she appears to want a companion. But what is she really after?
The plot goes backwards in time with episodes from Roy’s opportunistic life and the crucial points (the 90s, the 60s, the 50s, the 40s and all the way back to the 30s) at which he’s been able to use other people and step into different identities. These episodes are set against Roy’s present day life with Betty. He moves into her home and generally seems oblivious to how unpleasant he can be under sustained intimacy, but then while sociopaths are natural chameleons and so good at mimicking human emotions, sustained contact can reveal anomalies. I asked myself why on earth Betty tolerated such a bore, but all is gradually revealed under Nicholas Searle’s controlled narrative.
Episodes from Roy’s sordid past are contrasted with the various fictions he tells Betty, so we are taken through the looking-glass to the real events–events which Roy has chosen either to forget or to gloss over. There are amusing moments when, for example, Betty tries to pin Roy down about his family. When he mouths the typical thing that he “bitterly” regrets losing contact with his family, and Betty offers to help him find them, he then says “they’re all dead.” But then later he invents a fictional son who conveniently lives in Australia and never travels to England.
“Would you like to see him?”
“Not really,” says Roy. “We have so little in common. And I’m afraid I’m unduly rigid when it comes to my moral standards.”
Ultimately, The Good Liar argues that we cannot change other people, and neither can a sociopath ever grasp a sense of his responsibility when it comes to his actions. The only thing we can carry away from a brush with a sociopath is the knowledge that we have survived. This debut novel is well constructed, well paced and a page turner. I thought I was going to read something with an unreliable narrator along the lines of Get Me Out of Here or The Truth and Other Lies, but The Good Liar is a much more serious book, and Searle never allows Roy to control the reader’s vision.
Perhaps Roy should have asked himself why Betty picked the name “Estelle” for the first meeting. Although this is never addressed in the book, Great Expectations and its connotations came to mind.