Something strange happened to unreliable narrators in the mid-20th century: they became a little more reliably unreliable, and a lot nastier. In the late-19th century they tended to be untrustworthy either because they were hiding something about themselves or had failed to recognise the truth, generally because of some kind of psychological weakness. However, as modernism shifted into post-modernism and we all became that much more cynical, most narrators were expected to be complicated. Unreliability became inextricably linked with malevolence – not to mention duplicity, delusion, even derangement. Of course, as the parameters stretched, unreliable narrators also became a lot more fun, with humour often countering the blackness. The challenge was to make tricksy first-person characters both intriguing and entertaining.
1. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)
Never straight with himself, let alone the ladies and gentlemen of the jury to whom he is ultimately addressing his words, Humbert Humbert arrived halfway through the 20th century, intent on justifying his appalling crime. Nabokov’s syntactical genius is the one true triumph.
2. The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James (1898)
Is it a ghost story, or the tragic tale of a young woman undergoing a breakdown? Believing her two young charges are communing with the spirits of her two dead predecessors, the prim governess of Bly House becomes increasingly panic-stricken and erratic, until she’s left with a dead boy in her arms.
3. The Heart Of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1902)
Right at the start we’re told that Marlow likes to spin yarns. However, his tale of journeying up the Congo, in search first of ivory, and then the infamous Kurtz, is one of the most powerful stories in literature. Whether his story is strictly faithful becomes irrelevant, as Marlow ends up highlighting the moral corruption at the heart of all humans.
4. Money by Martin Amis (1984)
John Self is one of literature’s most repulsively addictive narrators. The book might be subtitled “A Suicide Note”, but it is in fact a love story, with Self dreaming up ever more extravagant ways to shed his wedge while pursuing entirely corruptible Selina Street, among others. The fact that Self might never have actually existed, revealed towards the end, is Amis’s sly take on the death of the self.
5. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (1991)
Patrick Bateman makes John Self look even more out of shape, when it comes to commenting on the big brands and applying his murderous hands to the unsuspecting and the vulnerable. Yet Ellis’s great comment on consumerism and the death of high culture could just be a mirror to our own deluded thoughts, and Bateman nothing more than a sickly funny fantasist.
6. The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson (1952)
It was Jim Thompson, not James M Cain, who put the hard into hard-boiled, the noir into roman noir. He was also one of the first crime writers to take us into the heads of seriously twisted killers, if not out-and-out psychopaths. Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford is regarded as a pillar of the small Texan community he serves. Yet he’s in possession of a secret he doesn’t even admit to himself. When the bodies start to appear, the net slowly tightens.
7. The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (1951)
Classic unreliability when first published in the early 1950s which now looks almost tamely reliable. Of course young Holden Caulfield is anything but clear about what his short, privileged life has already led him to believe – he’s a teenager. Naturally everything’s phoney, except his beloved sister Phoebe. Though even she is abandoned as Holden loses his fragile grasp on reality.
8. The End Of Alice by AM Homes (1996)
Narrated in the first person by a hyper-intelligent paedophile, and from the third person perspective of a 19-year-old girl with an unhealthy fixation on a much younger boy, Homes’s homage to Nabokov didn’t just question the nature of desire, but that of literary taste and acceptability. A brutally brave and truly experimental novel that, over here, fell very foul of the Daily Mail.
9. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (2003)
Shriver’s Orange Prize-winning novel is a postmodern masterclass in unreliability, as the principal theme of nature versus nurture trickles through the slow revelations of exactly what Kevin has done. Told in a series of letters by Kevin’s mother, Eva, to her estranged husband, Franklin, the reader is never quite sure of whether it was Eva or Kevin who exhibited the most disturbing behaviour. Franklin, meanwhile, is guilty of chronic denial.
10. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884)
In his search of freedom, as he floats down the Mississippi, Tom Sawyer’s best friend “Huck” Finn finds himself travelling out of his rational mind. First published in 1884, Twain himself described his controversial masterpiece, as “… a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat”.