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The Truth-Teller’s Lie Reader’s Guide

By Sophie Hannah

The Truth-Teller's Lie by Sophie Hannah


Questions and Topics for Discussion

“How will I begin? Once upon a time… but I am not confessing or revealing. I am lying through my teeth—that‹s the way to look at it. The truth will only be there to serve the lie, which means I don’t have to feel the feelings” (p. 75).

Naomi Jenkins is in love. Three years ago, she never would have thought it was possible. Kidnapped and brutally raped—but unwilling to report it to the police, or even to share her anguish outside of an anonymous survivors’ Web site—Naomi effectively shut off her emotions. Then, she met the unhappily married Robert Haworth, and the two shared a blissful year of clandestine meetings. So when Robert misses their usual rendezvous, Naomi is convinced he has come to harm and will stop at nothing to find him.

Detective Constable Simon Waterhouse and Detective Sergeant Charlotte “Charlie” Zailer aren’t sure what to make of the expensively dressed and crisply professional sundial maker who arrives in their offices to report a missing person. “Plenty of married men left their lovers without adequate explanation” (p. 20), but experience tells them to give her the benefit of the doubt.

Before coming to the police, Naomi asks her best friend, Yvon Cotchin, to call Robert’s home. His wife, Juliet, tells Yvon that he is visiting out-of-town friends. Undeterred, Naomi goes to their house in person only to discover that Robert—a lorry driver—has left his vehicle parked outside. When Juliet finds her peering into the house, she calls to Naomi by name and taunts her by saying, ” ‘You’re better off without him. I’ve done you a favour’ ” (p. 27).

Although Simon and Charlie promise Naomi that they’ll pay Juliet a visit, Naomi seethes with anger; she wants “to smash… their unresponsive heads together. They as good as admitted that they planned to do nothing” (pp. 36 – 37), and she is not a woman to sit idle when she feels slighted.

Naomi decides to change tactics—even if it means she must tell a horrific lie. She returns to the station and tells Simon that her previous story was pure fiction. Now, she’d like to report a rape. The circumstances of the attack she describes mirror those that she endured years before, but now she claims that Robert is not her lover—he is her assailant.

Naomi’s wildly contradictory allegations put the crime unit in a tricky position. Their boss, Detective Inspector Giles Proust, thinks that Naomi is playing games, and things have been rocky enough around the station without Proust—aka The Snowman—breathing down everyone’s necks for answers.

Charlie had been doing her best to hide the romantic feelings she still harbors for Simon—until he mentions that he’s planning to look up a woman involved in one of their earlier cases. Meanwhile, the two other members of their team, DC Christopher Gibbs and DC Colin Sellers, are respectively preoccupied with the former’s upcoming nuptials and the latter’s romantic getaway with his mistress. However, when it appears that Naomi’s actual rapist is still at large, the unit is galvanized into action.

Strangely enough, as the police begin to search for Robert Haworth, they find a lot of unexpected evidence that corroborates Naomi’s false claim. But how can this be happening? Naomi knows she was lying—she knows Robert wasn’t the man who raped her, that he isn’t the psychopath she claimed he was, so how can the police be finding evidence to suggest that’s exactly what he is?

Sophie Hannah is a master of psychological suspense whose star continues to rise. In The Truth-Teller’s Lie, she brings back Simon Waterhouse and Charlie Zailer for another superb thriller that plumbs the murkiest regions of the human psyche. But will they be able to act swiftly enough to prevent an even more sinister crime?


Sophie Hannah is the author of the international bestsellers Little Face, The Wrong Mother, and The Dead Lie Down. In 2004, she won the Daphne Du Maurier Prize for Suspense Fiction, and is also an award-winning poet. She lives in Cambridge, England, with her husband and two children.

Q. In each of your Simon Waterhouse and Charlie Zailer mysteries, you open with the first-person narrative of a clearly unreliable and unlikeable character. Yet over the course of the novel, you manage to make their quirks understandable—if not wholly sympathetic. Do you challenge yourself to devise and then redeem the most abrasive “protagonist” you can create?

Well, first of all, I have to say that I don’t ever think of my characters as unlikeable, and I don’t even think they seem unlikeable at the beginning of the books, though I know some readers do. The way I write is by getting right inside my characters’ minds, and if you’re right inside anyone’s mind, you see all their thoughts—the good and the bad. For me, if someone behaves badly or has a selfish thought, this doesn’t make them unlikeable—it makes them real. All the people I love most in the world have had the odd vicious thought and done the odd terrible thing. If my books had been written by someone else, and I read them, I would really, really like the main characters! I would cheer for them, even when they behaved immorally (like Naomi lying to the police). Sometimes you have to do the “wrong” thing to get to the right thing—so I was totally on Naomi’s side when she lied to the police. Very few people behave well at times of extreme stress—it’s all they can do to get through the trauma.

Q. Do you think Juliet’s loathing of Naomi is rooted in jealousy over her relationship with Robert?

Yes—and the huge irony is that, even when Juliet knows the full truth—that Robert isn’t the great prize catch she at first thought he was—she’s still jealous of the woman he planned to leave her for. The human ego is a deranged beast—we resent others getting their hands on what we consider to be rightfully ours, even if that thing is very bad for us. I know, and have known, many women who would fight to the death to hang on to their utterly repellent boyfriends/husbands, when everyone else is secretly thinking, “For God’s sake, let her take him!” Also, Naomi and Juliet should clearly be allies, and could maybe help and support each other a lot, but throughout the book they are enemies. I am very interested in the gross stupidity of extremely intelligent people—it’s everywhere. I find it fascinating that people so often act in a way that is contrary to their own interests.

Q. Where do you find inspiration for your fiction?

In real life—mainly my own. And then I add to my own experience to make it thrilling enough to grip readers.

Q. Marie Claire has written that you have “a bone to pick with suburban women who have it all.” Do you think this is true?

Not at all. I read that, and didn’t understand it. We’re told, these days, that we can have it all, and we’re constantly seeing examples of glamorous mummies who also have brilliant careers—so why shouldn’t we try to aim for that too? I have combined family and career pretty successfully, but the part of “all” that I don’t have is the glamour. I regularly wear scruffy, shapeless clothes and neglect my hair, and as for makeup… I don’t have time. If I wore makeup, I’d have to give up breathing or brushing my teeth.

Q. Each of your novels is focused on a crime that resonates far more deeply with women than with men. And while the men are often villainous, it is the women who are truly twisted. Is the dark underbelly of the female psyche richer fodder than that of the male’s?

Interesting. I think my male and female characters are equally twisted. Yes, I’ve thought about it and I’m pretty sure. There’s many a horrendously psychotic bloke in my novels… and women too, of course. I’m a thoroughly equal-opportunity psychotifier! One thing I would say, though, is that men tend to vent their aggression and negativity more openly, whereas women tend to repress and seethe—or at least I do!

Q. The rapes you describe in this novel are almost shockingly outré. Do you believe that crimes of this nature are really being committed?

As Jerry Seinfeld once so wisely said, “I wouldn’t put anything past anyone.” No, seriously, I once heard the husband of a friend of mine say that on his friend’s stag night, he and four friends all took turns having sex with a prostitute, one after another. In fact, Graham is based on that person, who shall of course remain nameless!

Q. Ellery Queen once said that poets and mystery writers both deal in turning “chaos into order.” As a poet and a mystery writer, do you agree with this statement?

Absolutely—both poetry and crime fiction are all about structure and shape.

Q. Women in love—Charlie included—never seem to fare well in your novels. Do you feel that, in general, they’re better off alone?

God, no. I’d never advocate being alone. It’s much better to have a series of miserable and unfulfilling relationships and keep hoping that a jolly and fruitful one will come along. If you’re optimistic, good things usually happen. I am very happy with my husband—and I’m glad I wasn’t put off relationships by all the vacant, uninspiring, twisted… (trails off bitterly).

Q. There is clearly unfinished business between Simon and Charlie, but Simon seems to have personal issues that still need addressing. Will we get to see more of his interior life in future novels?

Oh yes, readers will get to know Simon a little better in each book. But anyone who is waiting for the big secret that unlocks the mystery of Simon will be disappointed. His psyche is more of a jigsaw that gets put together gradually—this is more realistic, I feel. We understand people better by degrees. Generally, there isn’t a Eureka moment when someone says, “Aha, now I get it!” about someone else’s personality. Though that can happen…

Q. Do you think it is common for men to fantasize about raping a woman? What about women who fantasize about being victimized?

I don’t know how common it is, but I know that some men and some women have sexual fantasies involving rape. This is no way means that the men really want to rape women, or ever would, and it in no way means the women would secretly like to be raped—that’s the most important point to make. As long as it remains at the level of fantasy, no harm is done. Would I say to a man (or woman) whose sexual fantasies involved rape that those fantasies were wrong, that they “shouldn’t” have them? No, I don’t think I would. “Shouldn’t” is a fairly pointless word, and surely we should be free in our fantasies in a way that we’re not in real life. For example, the other night I entertained a nasty revenge fantasy. Someone had been horrible to me, and I imagined being really vile and vicious back to them, in a way that would destroy them, leave them a crumbling wreck of their former self. I enjoyed the fantasy, but I would never have tried to make it a reality because I didn’t, and don’t, want to destroy that person—I just wanted to entertain myself by imagining it while I was angry. But to do it in reality would make me feel ill. In reality, to behave in that way would make me feel sick to my stomach, and I’d rather be a doormat and take the flak than treat anyone so horribly—because probably, deep down, I’m a peaceful-minded wimp! So maybe my aggressive retaliatory fantasies compensate, I don’t know. Anyway, I think you get into dangerous territory when you start to police your own mind, or the minds of others.

Q. The series is currently being adapted for television in Britain. What are you most concerned might get lost in the translation?

The TV version will be the cousin of the book version, not its twin. Therefore it doesn’t matter if it’s a bit different—it’s supposed to be, because TV is a different medium with different needs. Trying to make one replicate the other is a bit weird—a bit like those parents who force their kids to wear matching clothes—yuck!

  • Which character in the book do you relate to most? Do you think Naomi’s lie to the police is defensible? What would you have done in her situation?

  • Discuss the significance of Juliet’s former occupation as a maker of idyllic miniatures while Naomi builds sundials that “only count the sunny hours” (p. 29).

  • Why do you think Charlie is sympathetic

  • SPOILER WARNING: Don’t read any further if you don’t want to know whodunit!

  • Although they can never fully recover, do you think that Naomi and Juliet will experience some relief once Graham is imprisoned and Robert is dead?

  • Rape is often described as a crime of violence rather than as a crime of sex. Do you agree with this characterization? What was the primary motivation for Graham and Robert’s crimes: money or hatred of women?

  • What do you think the appropriate punishment for Steph’s role in the crimes should be? Why would a woman knowingly stay in a relationship with a man like Graham?

  • Robert Angilley’s obsession with Branwell Brontë, the Brontë sisters’ dissolute brother, is so strong that he changes his last name and even tells Naomi that he—like Branwell—has three sisters. Early in the novel, Charlie remembers that she’d once teased Simon about his “tiny, neat handwriting… asking if his mother had forced him to invent a fictional country when he was a kid and fill leather-bound notebooks with tales of his made-up land, like the Brontë sisters” (p. 19). Is Hannah deliberately drawing parallels between Robert and Simon?

  • Should Charlie be allowed to resume her position with the CID after her relationship with Graham? Did Graham’s early behavior offer Charlie any warning signs that he was untrustworthy?
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