The Good Liar is British writer Nicholas Searle’s first novel, and for over thirty pages it’s also what I would call an instrument of torture, the sort where one is blindfolded and led off to an unknown destination, somewhere unpleasant. Prodding us along is the man calling himself Roy Courtnay, a scammer, it seems, who preys on widows he finds through online dating sites. He’s not a nice guy. When meeting women who have misrepresented their age, appearance, or wealth, he takes pride in what he conceives as his duty to straighten them out: “No insincere pleasantries. ‘Not what I was expecting at all,’ he will say with a weary shake of his head. ‘Oh, no. What a shame. If only you’d been clearer. If only you’d described yourself more . . . accurately, shall we say? Which at our time of life’ — here a brief twinkle of the eye and the hint of a smile to show what they will be missing — ‘we can ill afford to do.’ ”
Yes, we hate him — plus, we discover that he’s at least ninety years old, no joke, and feels he can pass for sixty. Forgive us for hoping he drops dead. But, wait a minute, who is this woman he’s meeting now? She is, we figure out later, in her eighties. She calls herself Estelle, then admits to being Betty and, in time, something else. She is good looking. Roy approves. We like her and can see she has her own obscure plans, though we wonder if she’s as canny as we hope she is, because the loathsome Roy has lost no time in moving in with her, ogling schoolgirls from her window. A little later we find him just sitting around the place running the TV at full volume, tetchy when spoken to, surly to Betty’s relations, casting a pall over Christmas, and generally playing the wet blanket — until, that is, he comes alive wondering if Betty wouldn’t be interested in investing her money with a friend of his, a real whiz at producing high returns.
We get the picture on Roy, but what about Betty? She’s up to something, something that allows her to put up with this ghastly man and his little ways, not the least of them his practice of befouling the bathroom: “a small price to pay in the greater scheme of things, she tells herself, as is the full range of his idiosyncrasies, though the idiosyncrasies — altogether too pleasant a term, she thinks — are accumulating into a tidy stack, she continues to put up with them for the longer-term benefit.” We are confident that that benefit is not a sunset romance. What’s going on?
In order to answer that question the story moves through the past, chiefly Roy’s, by increments, returning between times to report on the baffling doings in the present. First it’s back to 1998, where we discover Roy bilking some partners in crime out of their ill-gotten gains. Then it’s 1973, and we find him living with a woman but tiring of its rigors, — which is to say, of the curbs on indulging himself as slob, boozer, and womanizer. He’s also bored with his civil service job and goes into business as a smut shop owner, without, alas, making arrangements with the local heavies. Nineteen sixty-three finds him working at odd jobs for a meager living and examining his life: “It just wasn’t supposed to be like this. Roy wasn’t meant to be one of life’s also-rans, doing the hard work that sustained the successful in their positions. Things must change soon.” And indeed they do: He runs into more trouble, not all of his own making, though it does involve the disposal of a dead body, a tricky, physically taxing proposition.
An interlude in the present shows us that Betty is playing a long game — or some variety — and then we’re back on our journey into Roy’s checkered past. In 1946 we find him over in Germany, mopping up Nazis, and finally we are in 1938 Berlin — never a good sign.
I can reveal no more without letting loose a swarm of spoilers, though I can say that there is much rewarding black comedy here. Searle has created a splendid, full-fledged bounder in Roy, the genuine article: ruthless and suave, arrogant and condescending. I can say, too, that while the plot and its denouement are not really believable, the entire contraption is extremely enjoyable. This is, after all, a crime — or crimes — novel and not a work of intellectual penetration, spiritual depth, or stark realism. And once you have reached the book’s end and all its parts and workings are laid bare, you can return to those first thirty or so pages and run through them again — at which point, with the blindfold off, you see that your initial, painful bewilderment, was, after all, completely worthwhile.