Review: Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone, by Benjamin Stevenson


If “Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone” weren’t so sly it would be insufferable. It’s a showoff of a novel, flaunting its erudite mastery of the conventions of Golden Age British mystery fiction in every twist, turn and red herring of its plot. Any thriller brazen enough to preface its story with Ronald Knox’s classic 1929 “Decalogue” — otherwise known as the “Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction”— runs the risk of being too clever by half.

The “Decalogue” was composed by Knox to codify the concept of “fair play” among his fellow mystery writers. It contains such gems as Rule # III: “Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.” Readers unfamiliar with such arcane aspects of detective fiction history need not worry. Stevenson, who is also successful stand-up comedian, knows how to talk to two audiences at once — and to entertain as he educates. The uninitiated will miss some of this novel’s winking references to the works of Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and even Knox, but the Hellzapoppin-paced plot here, with its nonstop whirl of mistaken identities, secret alliances and devilishly designed murders, is more than enough to command attention.

Richard Osman is perfectly at ease pretending to be a 78-year-old woman

Here’s the premise: Our narrator, Ernest “Ern” Cunningham, makes his living churning out mystery-writing manuals with titles like “Golden Age to your Golden Page.” Crime, so to speak, is a Cunningham family profession. As Ern cheekily boasts in the novel’s Prologue: “Everyone in my family has killed someone. Some of us, the high achievers, have killed more than once.” The opening of the novel finds Ern driving to Sky Lodge, an isolated Australian ski resort, for a dreaded family reunion. One can understand the trepidation. The impetus for the reunion is the release of Ern’s brother, Michael, from prison after killing a man. Ern is the guy who put his brother behind bars courtesy of his eyewitness testimony. Among the attendees will be Ern’s mother, who hasn’t spoken to him since the trial, and his sister-in-law, Michael’s furious wife. Ern’s own estranged wife is also expected. (The entire text of Chapter 9, entitled “My Wife,” is composed of one sentence: “I don’t want to talk about it.”) Before long, though, the guest list begins to be pruned through a series of bizarre murders.

Ern drifts off to sleep his first night in his chalet, but, soon enough, he tells us that: “I woke to a hammering at the door. Of course I did. You’ve read these kinds of books before.” That metadramatic direct address to us readers defines the signature style of this weird hyper-self-aware mystery. Ern is constantly stepping out of the fictional frame in an exaggerated effort to “play fair” with the reader, much as the Golden Age mystery writers he reveres mostly did. In fact, Ern plays so fair with us readers that he ticks off the exact number of deaths — as well as the chapters in which they will take place — before the story proper even begins. Every time the plot veers within a mile of a mystery cliche, Ern rings the alarm bells: Take this passage in which Ern climbs to the roof of the soon-to-be-snowed-in lodge to try to get cellphone service:

“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.) … If it’s any consolation, no one’s phone runs out of battery until Chapter 33.”

The women in ‘Killers of a Certain Age’ are no coastal grandmothers

An inside/outside style like this is tricky. (And, by the way, not a modernist invention. In 1759, at the beginning of the history of the English novel, Laurence Sterne began publishing installments of his metadramatic novel, “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.” If you’ve never read it, give it a try: it’s a subversive hoot.) The technique of interrupting the flow of a story to remind readers they’re reading a story can become tiresome. Fortunately, Stevenson (like Sterne) wards off what readerly impatience he risks via the zest of his comic imagination: merrily generating multiple hidden identities and relationships along with grotesquely inventive methods by which bodies pile up in the snow (and elsewhere). In “Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone,” Stevenson not only “plays fair,” he plays the mystery game very, very well.

Maureen Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University.

Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone

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