FINAL READ OF THE YEAR!

“’So you’re a lawyer now?’

“’I guess so.’

“’Don’t you have, like, ten steps for solving crime or whatever? Just do – ‘ she wriggled her hands in the air like she was performing a magic trick –  ‘a bit of all that.’

“’They’re rules, not steps. And they’re not mine.’”

Monseignor Ronald Knox, circa 1930

The “rules, not steps” mentioned above are the Ten Commandments of crime fiction that were invented by Father Ronald Knox back in 1924 as a guideline for how to write a mystery – or, at least, which cliches and narrative double crosses to avoid. After he wrote his Commandments, Knox started dabbling himself in crime fiction, producing a half dozen novels, most of them featuring sleuth Miles Bredon, but the Commandments are probably his most lasting contribution to the Golden Age of Detection. They were always meant to be taken with tongue in cheek, particularly as his fellow Detection Club members spent their careers systematically breaking each commandment.

Frankly, I find it pretty ballsy of a modern crime writer to craft a present-day mystery novel around Knox and his commandments, but this is exactly what Australian author Benjamin Stevenson has done in his third mystery novel, Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone: he has not only centered his plot around Knox  (complete with a handy reference page at the top of the novel), but he posits an extraordinary world where these rules mean something, where average citizens talk about Knox and Christie and all sorts of Golden Age rule makers and breakers. I mean, none of my family or friends can hold a conversation with me about this stuff to save their lives! 

Oh, the unreality of the mystery genre!

I owe this read to my buddy Flex, of Flex and Herds, the genial hosts of the Death of the Reader podcast. After guesting on their show earlier this year to discuss The Crooked Hinge, (looks like that one is going to score pretty high on their year-end review!) Flex told me he thought I would like this one. And since I wanted to slip one more read in before the end of the year, I decided to see how well Stevenson’s book stacked up against Flex’ enthusiastic recommendation . . . especially as the blurb on the back cover – “Agatha Christie meets Knives Out in this fiendishly clever blend of classic and modern murder mystery” – is just asking for trouble from yours truly. 

The family in Everyone in My Family is the large – and largely dysfunctional – Cunningham clan, who have gathered together at a snowy mountaintop resort for a very special reunion. When the novel begins, a great many things have already happened to the members of this extended clan, including many of the “killings” for which each is responsible. We learn about these things in drips and drabs from the narrator and ostensible hero of our tale, Ernest “Ern” Cunningham, the middle son of the family matriarch. I say “ostensible,” as in “appears to be,” because the modern aspects of this novel cry out for an unreliable narrator. In fact, Ern seems to be challenging his readers to label him just so throughout the proceedings. Is he the detective, the Watson, or something more . . . sinister???

Ern happens to make his living self-publishing books for people who want to write a crime novel. It hasn’t paid off too well, both in terms of money and respect from the public and his family, but it has made him well-versed in the tropes of classic mystery fiction. As fans of GAD know, when a mystery author appears in the list of characters, you know that something meta-fictional is bound to appear. When your protagonist is a person who writes about classic mysteries, you might find yourself drowning in witty references and Easter eggs.  

That is definitely the case here, as Everyone brims to overflowing with winks and nods to the Golden Age. These include, of course, multiple references to Knox and his rules, as well as other GAD luminaries. (There are several Christie jokes, including my favorite about the snow turning the visual image on a security cam into a bunch of “little grey cells.”) Ern gets us ready for this in his prologue, even providing us with a list of the pages where each “killing” will occur. The author/narrator is also fond of giving away plot points way ahead of schedule and then offering them up with a twist. The game Stevenson is setting for himself is whether he can do all this and manage to still make us slap our heads in wonder and be thoroughly entertained.  

The novel is eminently readable. Stevenson is a professional comedian, and his style is often a series of set-ups and punchlines, reminiscent of a pretty good stand-up set. (It’s not perfect, but I would say more jokes land than fall flat, and the breezy prose keeps us moving along.) A lot of stuff happens – and I mean a lot of stuff, to the point where I had to slow down and shake out this panoply of plot points. With every member of this large family having killed – or about to kill someone, there’s a lot of action to juggle. The question for mystery fans, of course, is whether the book delivers on its tall order promise to be a blend of Christie and Knives Out?

And here’s where I’m torn and where, like Stevenson himself, I pause from the main story to tackle the meta-fictional element that pervades the book. Because I’m not sure the author himself wants me to tell you what I think! In one of his longer meta moments – one that fills a complete chapter! – Stevenson explains:

I’ve always believed that there are more clues in a mystery novel than just what’s on the page. A book is a physical object, after all, which can betray a few secrets the author does not intend: the placement of section breaks; blank pages; chapter headings. Even a cover blurb suggesting there’s a big twist can, in revealing a twist is present, ruin an otherwise well-executed one.

Of course, some of this is the big con of any mystery novel.  This is a genre which promises to mess with your head as much as possible. The mention of huge twists and reversals puts the reader on guard; it’s the literary equivalent of entering the old, dark house at the corner on Halloween night. We want to be terrified and we want to be safe. We want to solve the case before the detective and we want to be completely gobsmacked! It’s the dichotomy of being a mystery fan. Some people land more on one side of the spectrum than the other, but one thing we have in common is that we like to go in knowing as little as possible. (That’s why lots of people tell me they won’t read blurbs: like those carefully fashioned coming attractions at the movies, they simply reveal too much of the bounty waiting for you inside. 

So I’ll just say this. I think Stevenson’s book is an entertaining read. I think the plot gets so complicated that it threatens to cave in on itself, but in the end, the author manages to give us a series of twists (right down to the final page) that may not reinvent the genre but are immensely satisfying (I especially liked the very last one.) I will tease my fellow Christie fans by saying the main solution might remind you of one of her classic twist endings, and since there are about twenty of these, I don’t think I’m giving anything away. 

And there’s one other point I will state. It’s about the title. You may call it clever or clunky, but in the end, Stevenson makes it mean something a little richer than it did when you started. I also want to take him to task for providing his own (sort-of) spoiler: before I read the final half of the book, I discovered that the sequel, Everyone on This Train Is a Suspect, is coming out in October. 

Thank you, Felix, for the rec. 

2023 goals tomorrow!!!

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