‘The Good Liar’ by Nicholas Searle tells the story of Roy Courtnay, a conman aged in his eighties living in the leafy suburbs of England who is attempting to swindle wealthy widow Betty McLeish out of her life savings after meeting her on a dating website. However, although Betty appears to be a very easy target for Roy, she also appears to be suspiciously willing to become his latest victim.
I tend to look out for debut novels at the beginning of the year and ‘The Good Liar’ is one which I featured in my New Books Coming Soon in 2016 blog post last month. Stories about characters who live double lives are always intriguing, particularly when they have been written by an author like Searle who can reveal little about his own career as a senior civil servant dealing with security matters.
The first half of the book alternates between the story of how Roy meets Betty along with flashbacks of his past throughout the twentieth century which gives the story a more old-fashioned feel compared with many other modern thrillers. Although the beginning of the book is quite slow and it eventually transpires that some of Roy’s backstory about how he became a fraudster isn’t directly relevant to the outcome of his latest escapades, Searle gradually builds an effective psychological portrait of a very flawed and manipulative man. Comparisons with the character of Tom Ripley created by Patricia Highsmith are accurate and justified and the structure of the plot is cleverly constructed.
I became more intrigued by Betty’s story in the second half, particularly when her identity is revealed towards the end along with her reasons for allowing Roy to carry out his scam. However, in some ways, the main question of whether or not Roy will succeed in getting away with fraud does become rather irrelevant. After finishing the book, I now think that even if the ending had been different, the consequences for Roy wouldn’t really have changed that much due to his age and rapidly deteriorating health. The story would have been more convincing if the main characters had been younger, perhaps in their sixties. However, the plot was hinged on the very particular historical context of the Second World War while the modern part of the story wouldn’t have worked without the Internet meaning that the characters’ ages couldn’t be amended.
Even though there are plenty of surprising twists and turns in the plot, ‘The Good Liar’ is a novel which worked best for me as a character study rather than a thriller. I will be interested to see what Searle writes next. Many thanks to Penguin Viking for sending me a review copy of ‘The Good Liar’ via NetGalley.