Tag: Upon a Dark Night by Peter Lovesey

Three Mysteries with Unreliable Narrators

What was I going to write about? Oh yes, narrators with — ouch — head injuries that mess with their memories.

And, before I forget, this post has spoilers.

Amnesia is incredibly rare in real life, but within the last year I’ve read three novels with this kind of unreliable narrator.

The books

From 1997

Upon a Dark Night* by Peter Lovesey


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Summary:  A young woman with bad injuries is dumped the the hospital parking lot. When she awakes, she has no memory of who she is or what happened to her.

Although Detective Inspector Peter Diamond is the protagonist of the series, many of the chapters are from the young woman’s rather hazy point of view.

“Her loss of identity was total… She didn’t even know what sex she belonged to.
It called for self-discovery of the most basic sort. Tentatively she explored her body with her hand, traced the swell of her breast and then moved down. “


From 2015

Crash & Burn by Lisa Gardner

A mysterious woman survives a car crash, but has a head injury that leaves her memory severely impaired. Is it coincidence that she has sustained two previous head injuries in the recent past? She doesn’t remember.


My name is Nicky Frank. Except, most likely, it isn’t.


From 2018

The Witch Elm by Tana French

After Toby Hennessy is assaulted badly, he loses parts of his memory. He’s not at all sure what happened and, more importantly, what criminal acts he might have carried out in the past.


Unreliable narrators are incredibly popular right now (see Gone Girl, the Girl on the Train, and We Were Liars, for example). As a writer, I can understand the impulse to include a character who is a living, breathing victim, but who can’t reveal too much about what happened.  It helps generate sympathy for them, increasing the chances the reader will stick around to figure out the crime.  When the author drops a dead body in the first few pages, it is up to the detective(s) to generate emotional investment in solving the crime, which can be a more difficult task.

Writing an unreliable narrator, however, can be tricky. The best ones slowly regain their memories, creating a character arc that amounts to a writing trick for revealing back story in a believable way.

The worst ones aren’t consistent, remembering pieces when convenient, then forgetting again in the next chapter. Even worse, when it isn’t believable in what they supposedly forget. Take for example the young woman in Upon A Dark Night quoted above. Gender identity isn’t stored in the same place as the type of memories she appears to have lost. Plus, imagine yourself lying in a bed with your eyes shut. Can you figure out your own gender without feeling yourself up? I can. That error dumped me right out of the story.

Even the set up must be believable. In Crash & Burn, a woman who has had two previous bad concussions receives yet another brain injury. Why would the author do that? Perhaps to make sure the victim doesn’t regain her memory? It seemed like overkill, however, and frankly made an unlikely story even less plausible.

Authors often use unreliable narrators to generate convoluted plot twists, leading the reader down one path before careening off in a new direction. To keep the reader invested, there must be clues that things aren’t exactly as suggested on the surface. Unfortunately, if the clues are too subtle it can make for exhausting reading because you have to evaluate every word, every sentence for hidden meanings.

That was definitely the case in The Witch Elm for me. Not only was the main character an unreliable narrator, he turned out to have a negative character arc, starting out as a seemingly mild-mannered, pleasant young man who might have done something shady. By the end, I was trying to figure out why we were supposed to be interested in this man’s story at all. No one else in the story cared, either. It was only Tana French’s beautiful writing that kept me reading at all.

On the whole, I would say that mysteries with unreliable narrators who have amnesia or memory loss leave me unsatisfied. Let’s face it, people with their memories intact are unreliable enough. No need to add what is obviously an artificial construct into the mix.


How about you? Do you enjoy novels with unreliable narrators?


#BookBeginnings Upon a Dark Night by Peter Lovesey

Today’s shelf find is Upon a Dark Night by Peter Lovesey for Book Beginnings on Fridays.

Book Beginnings is a fun meme hosted by Rose City Reader blog. To participate, share the first sentence or so of a novel you are reading and your thoughts about it. When you are finished, add your URL to the Book Beginnings page linked above. Hope to see you there!



Upon a Dark Night* by Peter Lovesey

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Summary:   Detective Inspector Peter Diamond of the Bath homicide squad is working two cases:  the death of a woman who fell from the roof of a local landmark, and that of an elderly farmer who shot himself. He has no time for the mystery of a  young woman dumped in the hospital parking lot, injured and without a memory of who she is or what happened to her. He will leave that one to someone else. That is, until it becomes apparent that the cases may be linked in some way.

First Sentence:

A young woman opened her eyes.

The view was blank, a white-out, a snowfall that covered everything.



The Friday 56 is hosted by Freda’s Voice. The premise is simple. Turn to page 56 in the book and pick a quote.


He said, “I like chocolate chip cookies. I like chocolate chip cookies the best.”

I chose this quote because I like chocolate chip cookies, too.

Although the sentence seems like it might be filler dialogue, it turns out later in the page that it is actually a clue. A tiny clue, but a clue nonetheless. It’s great when chocolate chop cookies can be a clue.

When a friend gave me some older mystery novels a few months ago, based on the cover I thought this was one Lovesey’s historical novels. I put it away on a shelf. Last week I saw a Lovesey mystery featured on Shiela’s A Quiet Georgie blog and realized the Detective Inspector Peter Diamond  series is contemporary (well, as contemporary as the 1990s can be).  Another awesome shelf find!

What do you think? Would you pull out some chocolate chip cookies and read a Detective Inspector Peter Diamond mystery?

Are you finding any gems hidden on your shelves?

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