Dark Passages: Trusting What We Hear – Or Not

My newest column at the Los Angeles Times muses on unreliable narrators – a device I love, but not everyone does – and specifically, those employed in new novels by relative newcomers Jesse Kellerman and Angela S. Choi, both of whom I firmly believe will be writing exceptional works for the foreseeable future. Here’s how the piece opens:

I should admit up front that my favorite narrators tend to be unreliable.

While other readers seek comfort or order, a breather from life’s

everyday chaos and bad news, I like having my consciousness pricked by

protagonists who don’t understand their motivations and actions as we

do, who behave in ways that seem perfectly logical to them but utterly

horrifying to others and who operate in a space of perpetual truthiness.

Joan Schenkar’s recent biography of one of the most gifted

equilibrium-shifters, Patricia Highsmith, was so brilliant in revealing,

with skin-ripping clarity, the deep, throbbing neuroses of a person

capable of creating such a creature as Tom Ripley.

Crime fiction’s wide terrain makes plenty of room for such untrustworthy

sorts. Read Ira Levin’s 1952 debut, “A Kiss Before Dying,” and stand in

awe that such a young man (22 when he wrote the book) could burrow deep

into the mind of an out-and-out sociopath. Or take one of my

all-time-favorite works of mystery fiction, “In a Lonely Place” (1947),

Dorothy B. Hughes’ masterful exploration of a serial murderer so

believable in his self-deception that he is utterly baffled by the

thought that the type of women he gravitates to for killing might be the

same ones who defeat him. More recently, Jason Starr has staked this

same territory to prove a larger point about the never-ending anxiety of

living in concentrated urban spaces like New York City. When you’re

constantly in transit, on the move or hustling, who has time for petty

things like empathy?

But unreliable shouldn’t automatically translate into unlikable.

Sometimes that’s the case, but the writer who genuinely pulls such

narrators off understand there is a whisper-thin line between a charmer

and an evildoer, and that charisma can’t overcompensate for darker


Read on for the rest.