Book Review – Not A Happy Family by Shari Lapena

Pages: 429
Published: 27th July 2021
Genre: Mystery/Crime
Trigger warnings: Injury detail, bullying

In this family, everyone is keeping secrets–especially the dead. Brecken Hill in upstate New York is an expensive place to live. You have to be rich to have a house there. And they don’t come much richer than Fred and Sheila Merton. But even all their money can’t protect them when a killer comes to call. The Mertons are brutally murdered the night after an Easter Dinner with their three adult kids. Who, of course, are devastated.

Or are they? They each stand to inherit millions. They were never a happy family, thanks to their capricious father and neglectful mother, but perhaps one of them is more disturbed than anyone knew. Did one of them snap after that dreadful evening? Or was it someone else that night who crept in with the worst of intentions? It must be. After all, if one of your siblings was a psychopath, you’d know.

Wouldn’t you?

It may contain unlikable characters galore, but this mystery is amazingly addictive and all the better for it. Over the course of a gripping and meticulously plotted novel, the endgame of finding out the identity of a killer among a hoard of equally plausible suspects becomes something of an obsession, such is its simple brilliance and the ability it has to really draw you in.

This is the sixth book released by Shari Lapena, and it contains many of the familiar features of her writing, such as the constantly changing narratives and the gradual feeding of information that in turn makes each character look increasingly guilty. Before now that formula has been quite hit and miss despite each one containing lots of promise, but here she has produced what is clearly her best one yet.

Fred and Sheila Merton are a wealthy couple who are found brutally murdered in their home shortly after the Easter weekend, and the police determine that the time of death was on the night of Easter Sunday. Earlier that day, they had hosted a stormy family dinner with their three adult children and their cleaning lady Irena, where angry and unkind words were exchanged.

As the police investigation begins in earnest, they find that all three of the children had at least one clear motive to kill their parents – the common denominator being the inheritance each one was set to receive. Catherine has always wanted to have her parents’ house when they passed away. Dan is unemployed and strapped for cash after Fred sold his business. Meanwhile, Jenna’s suggestive art was not looked upon favourably by her parents.

Given his financial situation, erratic behaviour, and the fact he was frequently belittled by his father, all eyes immediately point towards Dan as the prime suspect, but details begin to emerge that cast everyone in a doubtful light. All three of the children ask their partners to lie for them about their whereabouts on the night in question, Irena is hiding things, and Fred’s sister Audrey is keen to stir up trouble. All of that amounts to an exceedingly difficult and frustrating case for the police.

The plot is wonderfully thought out and as the reader you are handed a breadcrumb trail for each character, all of which leads to a hypothetical question mark box. Dan is clearly the most obvious suspect, but you do not have to go to far to learn that the exasperatingly foolish actions of his siblings among others, make them look equally guilty. With each passing revelation, it is such fun to keep guessing who really is the murderer.

Such is the number of insidious secrets they are hiding and the greed all of them share over the contents of Fred’s will, the finger points in different directions and the red herrings get more startling as we get closer to the end. Ultimately, the identity of the perpetrator was not the biggest surprise, but the journey getting there is more than worthwhile. If there is anything at all to criticise about the plot, it is that the pacing relies too heavily on one piece of evidence being found.

Written in the third person, the perspective changes several times in each chapter, always moving the plot forward just that tiny bit more and planting another seed. It is done in a way that still makes the story very easy to follow, from the insights into the police investigation to the fragile state of mind shared by the various suspects, as well as their outright selfishness.

There are times where most of the characters will make your blood boil and regardless of which one is guilty, they are impossible to like. Catherine is portrayed as the calmest and most responsible of the three Merton children, which is worrying in itself, as some of her actions around the time of the murders and in the aftermath are frankly bizarre. Her husband Ted was one of the few characters with common sense.

It cannot be ignored that Fred was an unpleasant person who did give his children a hard time, but that does not absolve Dan of being a truly insufferable individual. He is petulant and takes no shred of responsibility for anything, so it was difficult to have any time for him whatsoever. It is even harder to see what his wife Lisa sees in him, but she is at least likeable.

Jenna is much more free-spirited and nonchalant than the others, with something of a rebellious streak. That said, she is clearly intelligent and is just as convincing a suspect. Meanwhile, there is always a question mark over Irena, despite the fact she has the least amount to gain by killing the Mertons. She is hiding something for sure, and has several possible connections to the crime.

One of the most interesting characters of the bunch is Audrey, even though she is in many ways just as awful as the rest of them. She is one of those people that you would hate to know in real life; a total busybody who is quite manipulative and seems to love causing conflict. As for Rose, she appears innocent at first until we get to know more about her, where it turns out she is also rather flawed.

The primary setting is that of a rich neighbourhood, and that is often reflected in the attitudes of the characters, who in the main are motivated by money and money alone. What the writing does so well is to make you despise them while being positively enthralled by the mystery, and the short sentences that are like leading statements have you drawing all kinds of conclusions.

After all the evidence is peeled away and the crucial find arrives, as mentioned before it is not a real surprise as a lot of the revelations are, in hindsight, smoke and mirrors. Then again, you would not have been surprised if someone else had been the killer and in fact, the ending is unexpected as it leaves the door slightly ajar and open to some interpretation.

Overall, this is one of those standout books that proves that you do not need likeable characters all the time in order to become completely immersed in it. The mystery is intricate and will occupy your thoughts even when you do not have it in your hands as it provides constant twists and countless possibilities. A compulsive read from start to finish.

I have to admit that I was wary of reading this book, having been somewhat underwhelmed by a few of Shari Lapena’s recent efforts. However, she has now delivered what is definitely her best one yet. This one had me hooked all the way.

My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5


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