Biggest Liars in Literature

Biggest Liars in Literature

Literature is full of fibbers, from the Wife of Bath onwards, but I’ve chosen five fine specimens from books written in the 20th century.

Liars may be calculating or just plain indifferent to the truth. Some inhabit a world so naturally riddled with deceit that they don’t even notice it any more. John Self in Martin Amis’ Money is a classic example. The movie business is driven by big talk, empty promises and double-crossing, and John Self adds tumblers of whisky to the mix until he really doesn’t know fact from fancy. And as is so often the case he’s not the only liar in the book. Film producer Fielding Goodney, Self's girlfriend Selina, they’re all at it, either blatantly blagging or merely self-deluding. Even John’s father turns out not to be not what he seems.

Some liars take you by surprise. In Sarah WatersFingersmith you very quickly get the measure of Sue Trinder as she plots and entangles poor, unsuspecting Maud Lilly. Or do you? I won’t be more explicit in case you haven’t read the book, except to say that even the most accomplished liar must always be prepared to meet their match. Some liars set alarm bells ringing from the moment they step onto the page. But what about the poker-faced innocent they think they’re about to deceive? 

The deliberate, clever liar can make for unsettling reading. All the more so if she’s an old lady. Iris Chase in Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin is one such character. Atwood herself has admitted that she was wary of giving free rein to such an irredeemable deceiver and the Chinese box structure – a story within a story within a story – can seem like the author’s way of keeping it all under control.

Rick Pym in John Le Carré’s A Perfect Spy is a heart-breaking father figure, as anyone who was ever let down in childhood will attest. Le Carré has described A Perfect Spy as his most autobiographical novel, which must be why Rick Pym is so perfectly drawn. But he is, as liars often are, a strangely likeable monster, a one-man party-starter, a ducker and diver in a Savile Row suit. Liars sometimes beget liars, which is certainly the case with Rick. But his son Magnus is a very different style of liar. The child for whom nothing was ever quite what it seemed becomes a master of self-containment, camouflage and inscrutability. In fact, the perfect spy.

I’ve saved my favourite fictional liar till last. Tarquin Winot in John Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure. Winot is picaresque, a dapper dresser, a considerable gourmand and a teller of 100%-proof insane whoppers. A patently unreliable narrator, he takes us on a journey from England to his house in Provence, educating us, entertaining us, and skewering everyone in his path with his delicious snobbery. Frankly the only things you can depend on with Tarquin are his recipes. I can personally vouch for his Queen of Puddings. I must though advise the uninitiated to avoid any recipe of his containing wild mushrooms. I’ve always felt Tarquin Winot ought to be an anagram but I’ve never managed to succeed.

The Liar's Daughter by Laurie Graham is published on 10 October by Quercus.