Review of Nicholas Searle's The Good Liar, published by Penguin in hardback at £12.99

by Annie Clay, of The Grove Bookshop, Ilkley

OCTOGENARIAN Roy is a con-artist, poised to execute one final deception before he retires. He has chosen as his victim Betty, an attractive wealthy widow, whom he met on an online dating website. He plans to woo her and run away with her life savings – a relatively simply trick compared to the complex, twisted embezzlements that Roy has successfully pulled off countless times. Yet Betty is not the frail, guileless woman Roy believes her to be and, to the reader at least, it appears that Roy may finally have met his match. Promising Betty in their first meeting that he will only give her ‘total honesty,’he reveals perhaps a little more than he would like; Betty seems mildly perturbed at such a bold claim, while the reader recognises the arrogance and over-confidence of a man who is prepared to offer anything but honesty, even in his own narrative (he is the ‘good liar’ of the title, after all).

The Good Liar follows Roy in his budding relationship with Betty, while intermittent chapters flash back in reverse to periods in Roy’s life, from his recent malevolent exploits to his pre-war youth. His history is gradually unravelled and we learn of the devious path Roy has forged in order to be where he is today. Searle creates a seamless balance between the significance of the past and the anticipation of the present, in which Roy and his long-time accomplice Vincent are up against Betty, with her own agenda, and her protective grandson Stephen. As the present-day story builds, the flashbacks delve deeper into Roy’s bitter, venomous mind; his dubious morality is the only thing we can be sure of in such a compulsively callous liar. Yet both he and Betty have their own secrets and as tensions start to build in their relationship, it becomes painfully clear that Roy no longer commands the formidable image that he has relied upon throughout his career.

Though The Good Liar is Nicholas Searle’s debut novel, it reads much more like the work of a consummate professional, as the writing is assured and carefully organised, with satisfyingly comprehensive characterisation and chilling accounts of certain events. The historic accounts are outstanding in their authenticity, so much so that the inevitable jump back to the present is occasionally hard to adjust to after been drawn into such a credible period. Yet Searle places the plot within the narrative so perceptively that it simply feels as though any confusion is simply an echo within the reader of Roy’s progressively deteriorating mind, and we are inevitably jolted back to the present with a new twist. These continuous twists maintain the reader’s interest as characters reveal vital aspects of their schemes, culminating in a remarkably effective ending – providing a satisfying finality to the haunting uncertainty of the plot.

With an enigmatic indication, in his author biography, that he has settled into writing fiction after working in the security services, it appears that Nicholas Searle may be following in the footsteps of former-secret-service-employees-turned-authors such as John le Carré and Stella Rimington. If The Good Liar is anything to go by, there is no reason to suggest that Searle will not achieve similar success, and I for one will be eagerly anticipating anything else he goes on to write.