The Little Lie (1968) by Jean Potts

Whilst this story is more of a novella than a novel, Potts packs a great deal into it and John Norris’ introduction provides a number of insights into how this tale compares with its reprint companion, Home is the Prisoner. John writes that these stories ‘complement each other by exploring polar opposites.’ In my last review, the protagonist was a man named Jim Singley, who is the only one interested in pursuing the truth. However, in this read our lead character is a woman named Dee Morris, who is a habitual liar and is ‘comfortable fibbing in order to protect her sheltered microcosm, ignorant and uncaring of the consequences her lies will have on the people in her life.’ John goes onto write that The Little Lie ‘presents another example of a Potts woman who has been imprisoned by her thoughts and perverse imaginings’ and that Dee is ‘one of her most unnerving and deeply disturbed characters.’ Having the read the tale I can heartily agree! Though interestingly her ‘disturbed’ nature is not one which leaves you with nightmares, nor is it one which repels you from reading on. Potts’ work is a testament to the truth that you can plunge the darker areas of the human psyche in an engaging way without recourse to extremely graphic descriptions. You can’t help but keep reading this tale, keenly wanting to know how ‘a seemingly innocuous lie’ will end and what carnage will follow in its wake.

But before I get ahead of myself, here is what the story is about…

‘Everyone knows that Dee and Chad will eventually get married. They’re such a perfect couple. So when boarder Mr Fly overhears them having an argument that results in Chad’s moving out, he assumes that they will soon make up. But Dee knows that it’s over. She just can’t stand the public humiliation. So she lies about it. Just a little lie. She tells everyone that Chad had moved to the city to pursue a new job. Then she tells everyone he’s headed for California, where she will no doubt soon join him. She even convinces herself that it’s all true. Still, when the plane that Chad is supposedly on crashes, and someone with his last name is listed as a passenger, Dee breathes a sigh of relief. Her secret is safe. But is it…?’

Overall Thoughts

Potts begins with the tale from Mr Fly’s point of view. He literally is the fly on the wall, a tenant in Dee’s home who has a tendency to eavesdrop and Potts uses this fussy bachelor to full and great effect. In keeping with the author’s penchant for turning moral codes upside down, it is engrossing to watch her have the well-intentioned actions of Mr Fly achieve completely the opposite.

Whilst the centre of attention is Dee, I think Potts is very clever in having the story cast its net wider, in that events, big and small, come from a variety of characters. The reader is therefore the one most in the know, unlike Dee who is unnerved by her uncertainty over how much certain characters know about her. Interestingly as well once Dee unfurls her initial lie about Chad and why he isn’t there, it is the other characters who more actively caused events to happen, causing Dee to add further lies into the mix. Not until the end does Dee fully stir into action, which surprisingly is not a criticism in this case. Dee is a predator by nature and is quite happy to let others wear themselves out, before springing into action herself. Additionally, what contributes an extra level of tension to the piece is the unpredictability of Dee, not least because of her weakness in often believing her own lies. This leads to the question of whether she is in control of her lies or whether they are in control of her.

Like Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence (1958) and Patricia McGerr’s The Seven Deadly Sisters (1947), Potts also works with the trope where a female lead is the head of household and who smothers her family members with kindness – kindness which is more of a disguise for the desire to control and possess. Yet this trope feels anything but tired in the hands of Potts, who develops it much more darkly than Christie and McGerr do. Suffice to say I closed this book with the words, ‘Blooming Heck!’ – which is always a good sign that the ending did its job! Similar to the denouement in The Evil Wish, Potts delivers another finale which creates a memorable bombshell, yet the thing which remains the most after reading is not the dramatic actions of the characters, but the chilling atmosphere, as the narrative descends into madness in the closing lines. Also like The Evil Wish, Potts deploys a protagonist whose energies propel them into manufacturing their own downfalls, unable to stop themselves nor accept the help of others to prevent their fate. So good is the ending to this book that it had a significant influence on my final rating and it also left me with the strong sense that this story, for the end scene alone, would make for an excellent one-off TV drama.

Rating: 4.5/5

Source: Review Copy (Stark House Press)

5 comments

  1. I have a few of Jean Pott’s mysteries. I have Go, Lovely Rose and The Evil Wish in the Stark House reprint edition. And then I got two more at the book sale in September but I don’t know where they are so not sure which ones. And I look forward to reading them. Even though I am retired now it is continuing battle to work my way through uncatalogued books from the last two years. It is fun though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is! I’m trying to fight the good fight with my own TBR pile. It’s a tricky knack to keep your reading speed that bit faster than your buying speed. The two have definitely swapped places for me in the last couple of months.

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  2. I’ve only read The Diehard from 1956 (Penguin crime) and I really liked it, but I haven’t found any others by her, I like to stick to secondhand bookshops rather than the internet as I already have such a backlog of books to get around to reading. It would be much worse if I splurged online too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I definitely think you would enjoy this one, especially if you have liked The Evil Wish (?). There might even be some clothes in books moments too – there’s certainly a moment where a woman called Peggy seemingly compliments Erna on her home made outfit, yet Erna is not so sure it was a compliment afterwards.

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