On July 24, 2018
The unreliable-narrator craze continues with Delaney’s (The Girl Before, 2017) new thriller.
A disgraced British actress named Claire Wright comes to the United States, sans green card, looking for work. Her agent gives her the bad news. “The days we took the huddled masses yearning to be free are long over.” She ends up working for a divorce lawyer, setting up stings to entrap unfaithful husbands by pretending to be a high-priced hooker. Then one of her prospective clients is found dead beneath a bloody sheet in a hotel room. Primary suspect: the woman’s husband, a Columbia University professor and the translator of Baudelaire’s book of S&M poetry, Les Fleurs du Mal. The police suspect he’s a serial killer, with previous Baudelaire-inspired murders under his belt, ha ha. They have Claire go undercover to lure this guy into a confession. It’s the role of her career, one she throws herself into so wholeheartedly she loses track of what is real and what is masquerade, ending up madly in love with her target. After many twists and pseudo-reveals, she ends up first in a mental institution and then with a starring role in My Heart Laid Bare, the suspected killer’s off-Broadway show based on a nasty incident in the life of Baudelaire. “Who is the real Claire Wright? The one sitting here with her precious green card and permit in front of her, exchanging pleasantries with the man who provided it? Or the one who fell for the darkness she sensed deep inside the only man she couldn’t seduce?” An unreliable-narrator setup works best when the character believes her own story or is lying intentionally to other characters in the book. When it mostly means that the narrator deliberately conceals key facts from the reader for no purpose other than to create confusion and suspense, it feels a little cheesy. The author confesses in an afterword that she wrote and published this book decades prior to last year’s bestseller, The Girl Before, but it didn’t do very well, so she’s trying again with a rewrite.
An Amazon Best Book of July 2018: There were times while reading JP Delaney’s Believe Me where I asked myself, what the hell is going on?! Not out of frustration, but rather out of admiration for Delaney’s ability to keep me guessing. The novel centers around a murder, a struggling actress, and the dark nature of Baudelaire’s poetry. And if you think you know unreliable narrators, just wait until you meet the actress Claire. The trope is familiar: a woman is brutally killed in a hotel room; is her husband the killer? Claire finds herself playing a part in this all-too-real drama in order to rid herself of suspicion and to help catch what now appears to be a serial killer. But is she really acting? Is she crazy? Is she the killer? The story winds this way and that, and my allegiance to Claire followed suit, until Delaney’s over-the-top ending arrived. For some, the final acts of Believe Me may push their limits for suspending disbelief. But for me, the events leading up to the final act were so dramatic that a flamboyant conclusion was the only way out. —Seira Wilson, Amazon Book Review
“A compelling read . . . redefines the concept of an unreliable narrator . . . [a] rich, nuanced, highly literary take on the Gone Girl theme.”—Booklist (starred review)
Praise for JP Delaney’s The Girl Before
“A pitch-perfect novel of psychological suspense.”—Lee Child
“The pages fly.”—USA Today
“The Girl Before generates a fast pace.”—The New York Times
“Get hooked on this hair-raiser.”—Cosmopolitan
“[A] must-read.”—New York Post
“Almost unbearably suspenseful.”—Joseph Finder
“A masterfully crafted spellbinder.”—Booklist (starred review)
“Superior psychological suspense.”—The Bookseller
“A sexy murder mystery.”—InStyle
Top customer reviews
JP Delaney’s BELIEVE ME is being marketed as a twisty psychological thriller, so I was expecting something like GONE GIRL or THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (with a plethora of perverse characters you can’t ever trust). But BELIEVE ME is much more straightforward in its story and its characters, and its “twists” aren’t particularly twisty.
The protagonist and narrator is twenty-something Claire Wright, a British actress trying to make a go of it in the New York theater scene. Unfortunately, Claire doesn’t have a Green Card, so she’s forced to take an unorthodox job helping divorce attorneys trap cheating husbands. Claire is great at this job, since immersing herself into a role is her forte. She can assume a character like nobody’s business, taking on any voice and any attitude. So when the wife of one of the cheating husbands is brutally murdered, Claire is recruited to help the FBI and the police determine whether the husband is the killer. What ensues is a cat-and-mouse game where you’re never quite sure who’s the cat and who’s the mouse.
The thing is, Claire is pretty upfront and honest about her propensity for assuming other identities. She tells us all about it – this is who she is. So no, we can’t always trust the things she tells us, but it’s still not much of a surprise when a twist is revealed. The murder story is interspersed with vignettes about Claire’s acting classes, which help us understand how she gets into character and how she has learned to become the person she’s pretending to be. The ultimate question, though, is who is the real Claire?
Some of the dialogue in this novel is written in screenplay format, as if Claire’s life really is a movie (she seems to see it this way, so it makes sense). But it’s fairly obvious that most of these scenes are Claire’s invention (she’s “writing” them, after all), and they can’t be taken as the literal truth. Some of them seem to be her imaginings of what people might say or could say, rather than what they actually did say. It’s an interesting device that helps us understand Claire, at least in part.
While I did enjoy reading this book – and Claire’s character is definitely intriguing – the ending totally lost me. The identity of the murderer is no surprise (I did consider a few other options during course of the novel, but the final reveal was what I expected). But the way the final scene unfolds seems bizarrely over-the-top in a way that is not at all believable. Somehow, it just didn’t mesh with the rest of the novel. And it didn’t mesh with Claire.
Overall, this is a well-written thriller with an interesting central character. What works is Claire’s personality, which is both believable and difficult to pin down (therein lies the heart of the novel). What doesn’t work as well is the murder mystery itself, especially what happens in the end. Read it for Claire, but don’t expect a story that’s as gripping as she is.