My first encounter with an unreliable narrator—that I recognized, that is—was years ago when I first read Agatha Christie’s notorious The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, first published in 1926. The ending stunned me as it has many other readers through the years. It also gave rise to a list of rules for writing mysteries formulated by mystery author John Dickson Carr, rebuttals to that list from other authors, and an essay by the well-known literary critic Edmund Wilson entitled “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”
The comments continue today. I just googled “Murder of Roger Ackroyd” and came up with another endless list of websites pouring vitriol on Wilson for his essay and continuing the debate.
Whether or not a mystery author plays fair when his story narrator is unreliable is obviously still debatable, especially among those of us, unlike Wilson, who love mysteries. Even if we do like the author to play fair, we all know that everything written is subject to the author’s own experiences, impressions, attitudes of the time, personal agenda, imagination, etc. I was especially aware of this while researching the history of Morocco for my historical adventure novel, Shadow of the Rock.
I needed to learn about the history and culture of Morocco in the period from 1780-1795. This was tough. The only books i could find that might possibly yield the information I needed were written in French. However, as I pursued various sources (PhD dissertations, journal articles, etc.), I kept coming across citations in the bibliographies for two books. Both were published in 1792-3, both were travelogues, so they could provide details about customs, daily life, political situation, etc., and both were in English! Hooray!
I found a modern translation of one, called Travail in an Arab Land by Samuel Romanelli, in a used book store. I bought the second, A Tour From Gibraltar to Tangier, Sallee, Mogodore, Santa Cruz, Tarudant... by William Lempriere, Surgeon, for $250 from a rare book dealer. This one, the author proclaimed, included “a particular account of the royal harem. . .”
Exactly what I was looking for. The fact is, though, that both authors were men of their time, and they were probably manipulated and their experiences managed by those they encountered. Romanelli was an Italian who had no kind words for the king’s vizier and worked as the vizier’s secretary for awhile as he waited for permission from the king to leave Morocco. Lempriere was an English surgeon sent to Morocco to attend to the king’s court in exchange for the release of shipwrecked English sailors enslaved by the king. How reliable was Lempriere’s description of the royal harem? He was a man of his time expected to provide medical services to these secluded women, and he knew that he would be reaping a juicy description for the book he was going to write.
So as with all historical accounts, I had to read between the lines, use my imagination, and try to develop characters that were fairly drawn and believable placed in the settings and drama of life during those times. Of course, my research also had to include a tour of Morocco, but I try to do what’s necessary.