THIS IS NOT A DRILL MYSTERY PUZZLE FANS! GO BUY: Everyone in my Family has Killed Someone (2022) by Benjamin Stevenson

If you had to pick a title of a modern mystery I would like, I don’t think this would be it. The title, on its own, suggests noir and grit and all the things I am not overly bothered about. But this book came on to my radar via a tweet, which combined it with its cover and blurb. Both together made it sound much more like my cup of tea.

Now many a modern mystery has claimed to be channelling Golden Age detective fiction, only for the unfortunate GAD fan to read the book and find a poor imitation at best. It’s like you have been promised a bottle of Chanel No. 5, but then discovered you have been given a bottle of vinegar instead. However, Stevenson’s book provides no such disillusionment. It actually delivers on its claim – a rare feat in today’s world.  

Synopsis

‘I was dreading the Cunningham family reunion even before the first murder. Before the storm stranded us at the mountain resort. The thing is, us Cunninghams don’t really get along. We’ve only got one thing in common: we’ve all killed someone. My brother, my step-sister, my wife, my father, my mother, my sister-in-law, my uncle, my step-father, my aunt. Even me. When they find the first body in the snow, it’s clear that only a Cunningham could have committed the crime—and it’s up to me to prove it. There are plenty of killers in my family. But only one murderer….’

Overall Thoughts

As part of the novel’s dialogue with interwar crime fiction, the reader at the start of the story is provided with a copy of the Detection Club membership oath and a copy of Ronald Knox’s Decalogue. That is, minus rule number 5. In its place we are given this message:Author’s note – Culturally outdated historical wording redacted’. This made me wonder if the writer was not aware that rule number 5 was not one sentence, but a whole paragraph long. The first sentence in isolation, (as it is often found in the truncated version of the decalogue), undeniably comes across as racist: ‘No Chinaman must figure in the story.’ However, if you place it back into the context of the whole paragraph, the sentence still contains problematic or ‘outdated’ language, but the meaning of the rule is far more apparent:

‘No Chinaman must figure in the story. Why this should be so I do not know, unless we can find a reason for it in our western habit of assuming that the Celestial is over-equipped in the matter of brains, and under-equipped in the matter of morals. I only offer it as a fact of observation that, if you are turning over the pages of a book and come across some mention of ‘the slit-like eyes of Chin Loo’, you had best put it down at once; it is bad. The only exception which occurs to my mind – there are probably others – is Lord Ernest Hamilton’s Four Tragedies of Memworth.’

Instead of wanting to ostracise Chinese characters from detective novels completely, the rule is exhorting writers to avoid including horribly stereotypical portrayals of Chinese people. Classic crime fiction undoubtedly has issues with racism, but I find it annoying when the first sentence of this rule is trotted out in isolation as evidence for it, as if you read the whole paragraph, it is advocating the opposite. Don’t get me wrong I really did enjoy Stevenson’s book but this inaccuracy peeves me, as by redacting that rule, I think the myth of it being a racist rule is perpetuated, as readers are unlikely to look up the full-length rules independently.

If this is a topic that interests, you then I recommend following this link to Jim Noy’s longer post exploring this rule.

But with that bugbear out of the way, lets move on to the mystery proper.

Everyone in my Family has Killed Someone begins with a prologue and looking back at it, I think its main aim is for the author, via the narrator, to set out his stall in terms of his intentions for his mystery. Fair play, as foreshadowed by the inclusion of Knox’s Decalogue, is paramount. The narrator, Ernest Cunningham, claims he is relating a true story, yet his metafictional comments about the genre, break down the fourth wall in a way. The balance between the two is interesting to see. Readers are told up front what pages in the book report the various murders which happen. This is a narrator who is very keen to provide the reader with as much information as possible. But seasoned fans of the genre know such helpfulness can be deceptive. Ernest writes:

‘I realised that telling the truth was the only way to do it. It sounds obvious but modern mystery novels forget that sometimes. They’ve become more about the tricks the author can deploy: what’s up their sleeves instead of what’s in their hand. Honesty is what sets apart what we call ‘Golden Age’ mysteries: the Christies, the Chestertons.’

He continues by mentioning that he is going to be a reliable narrator: ‘Everything I tell you will be the truth, or, at least, the truth as I knew it to be at the time that I thought I knew it.’ So as you can see this mystery is setting itself up to be Christie-esque in that the truth is to be paraded in front of you but in such a way you’ll miss it.

The prologue perhaps lacks high impact as a consequence, coming across as a little highfalutin, (in comparison to the rest of the story), but it was interesting to see a novel set itself up that way. The opening line is also very good: ‘Everyone in my family has killed someone. Some, of us, the high achievers, have killed more than once.’ It is the kind of line which pleasingly comes back to mind near the end of the tale.

The narrative voice is very direct, and I found it hard to adjust to during the prologue, however, once the mystery got going, I found I acclimatised to it well and it was a voice I enjoyed engaging with. I think it was just a case of needing to warm to Ernest and his use of humour does speed this process this up. For example, when describing the family reunion at the ski resort, he explains why he did not try to avoid it:

‘I’m well known in family circles for being ready with an excuse […] The invitation promised a fun and secluded weekend where all of us could catch up. She’d bolded the words all of us, as well as the word mandatory. Evasive as I am, even I can’t argue with bold type.’

In addition, as we begin to discover more about the family dynamics, Ernest’s ostracised position engenders sympathy from the reader.

With such a title, some people might be reading this and thinking, “It’s just a cheap gimmick” and going into the book I was a little sceptical too. However, this potential criticism is shown to be foundation-less upon reading the novel, as I was impressed with how well the title was worked into the plot. Yes, it is a title designed to grab your attention, but from a plot point of view, it is well justified. As Ernest says: ‘Look, we’re not a family of psychopaths. Some of us are good, others are bad, and some are just unfortunate.’

Killing is shown to be a varied activity in this story, they’re rarely straight forward, and this connects into the fact that the chapters are put into different sections. Each section is entitled with a family member, and you know within that section, their “killing” will come up.

This brings me to my next topic: Backstory.

If you read my blog regularly then you will know that I am not a big fan of mysteries which take an articulated truck, back it on to the page and then info dumps me. Sometimes this problem strikes at the beginning and at other times it rears its ugly head at the denouement, when the author realises that a lot of information needed to solve the case has not been revealed yet. So for me I am quite wary of backstory dominated narratives.

But for Benjamin Stevenson I have to make an exception. 

Not since I read Janice Hallett’s The Appeal (2021), have I seen a mystery whose backstory is not only absolutely critical to the plot, but is disseminated in a puzzle mystery fan friendly way. The author kicks this off in the opening chapter with Ernest’s brother arriving at his house with a man on his back seat which he admits he ran over. Together they go to bury him. This event took place three years previously and the consequences of what happened that night send shock waves through the rest of the story. It sounds like quite a commonplace scene for a mystery novel, yet the tendrils of mystery which spawn out of it are breath-taking. I don’t want to go into lots more plot details for that reason. This is a mystery where each segment of backstory is revealed to us on a realistic time scale and with each new piece questions are answered, but many new questions also arise. This is a story where you must be on your mettle. Wording and punctuation are critical.

In true interwar crime manner, the main murder method deployed in this mystery, is intriguingly unusual, as is the way its first appearance is presented to us. One of the suspects, a surgeon, describes the ash visible on the corpse found outside on the resort grounds:

It’s clogged in his windpipes, caked on his tongue. If we cracked him open, we’d find it in his lungs, I’m sure. It doesn’t make sense. If it wasn’t for the fact that he doesn’t have a single burn mark on him, and he’s in a snowfield that has no signs of being melted, I’d say the cause of death was obvious […] He died in a fire.’

Throw in one too many sets of footprints and you have a tantalising crime setup. I will say at this point that if like me you can’t hold highly mechanical and intricate murder method solutions, then you will be fine with this book. As Christie and now Stevenson shows, sneaky puzzles do not have to be overly complicated nor require several pages of diagrams (yes, I am looking at you Rupert Penny!).

With so many mystery novels having been already published, it is impossible to write such a book now and not include some well-worn mystery fiction tropes. Yet this is not a bad thing in and of itself to me. What matters to me is how these tropes are used or how they are described. I won’t go into the former as that would probably involve spoilers, but below is one particular passage I enjoyed which unapologetically leans into mystery fiction cliches when Ernest mentions that his phone battery is down to 54%:

‘I had to be standing on the roof to get a single bar of reception, and even then it was hit and miss, which I’m well aware is, like, a thing in these books. You’ll just have to get over it. And I know there’s a storm front coming in. And I know I glossed over the fact that there’s a freaking library with a fireplace in the building (which happens to be where I will solve the damn thing). It’s pretty much the whole How-To-Write-A-Mystery checklist at this point. If it’s any consolation, no one’s phone runs out of battery until page 280. So the reception and the battery thing is a cliche. I don’t know what to tell you – we’re in the mountains. What do you expect?’

This is also an example of how the bold direct narrative voice can work effectively in the story.

Speaking of clichés, us bloggers have them too. If I had a penny for every review I have seen with phrases such as ‘mouth dropping moments,’ ‘page turner’ and ‘gripping until the very end,’ then I could happily retire, buy a castle with a library in that has sliding ladders, and possess all the crime fiction I could possibly want. (I’d be setting myself up to get murdered in true Golden Age style but that is a different matter!) With such repeated use they can begin to lose their meaning or value and as such they are not phrases, I use routinely. So when I do they mean an awful lot! And this is the case with Stevenson’s novel, which in my opinion has deservedly earned all three.

In keeping with the playing fair mission statement set out at the beginning, Ernest often sums up the situation so far, lists key points and before he reveals the solution, itemises the clues which helped him reach his conclusion. There is even one point in which we are told that some of the full names of the characters provide spoilers! Having read a lot of good and plenty of not so good mystery novels, I could tell a lot of effort had gone into the construction of this plot. The case is complex, but not boggling to the extent that it gives you a headache. Each element tessellates well with the other parts, and I think the writer has a strong talent for arranging events into a sequence which has many surprises but is fair with them. He also uses foreshadowing to very good effect and not in an overly sentimentalised Had-I-But-Known way.

So how did I do at figuring out the mystery? There were several crucial aspects of the puzzle that I did not solve, but I did clock the culprit early-ish on, as my head was just looking in the right direction. A sentence here and a negation there, helped me get my eye in and reminded me of another mystery by a different author. That said I was not convinced that I was right, so I was still eagerly devouring the rest of the narrative to find out what happened next and to decipher what the end game was for the relevant character(s). In that respect this mystery has a puzzle which is more than a simple whodunnit, a guilty name. There is much more to solve, which I really enjoyed.

Unsurprisingly, this is a mystery I can highly recommend to readers who love a good puzzle. In contrast to many modern mysteries Stevenson understands the need for clues, and he knows how to use them. The story is well-paced and the writing style and characterisation (which makes you care) all combine to make this a very rewarding reading experience.

This book is out as an eBook, hardback and on Audible from the 18th August, so I advise you all to make a note in your diary or to pre-order it now.

I look forward to seeing what mysteries this author writes next.

Rating: 5/5

Source: Review Copy (Michael Joseph via Netgalley)

9 comments

  1. If only Knox had summarized it as “No lazy stereotyping”, then we wouldn’t be in this mess! Don’t think he would have done that, though, given the stereotypes in Solved By Inspection.
    I’d already heard good things about this book but now you have me really eager for it! It’s probably fortunate (for me, anyway) that it’s not out quite yet given all the other exciting books out at the moment, though.

    Liked by 1 person

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