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“Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone” by Benjamin Stevenson

So I’ve neglected my own personal challenge, one which requires a pace of 2 books per month, during the entirety of February. Whoops. In my defense, I’d chosen this book as my next selection about midway through the month, started it, then realized I had a couple of busy weeks ahead of me. No problem, I thought, I’ll just put it down for a week or so and find a good time to get back into it before February is out. It seemed like a good plan, and I was on track with everything else I had to do, and then right before February ended I got the norovirus. I’ve managed to evade COVID for 3 years, and I’m as germaphobic as they come, but this stomach bug just seemed to blow up and now it’s spreading like wildfire! So my second busy week was completely derailed by a week’s worth of tummy troubles and fatigue. Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone would have to wait for a healthier-feeling me.

Thankfully, I’ve since recovered and sped through the rest of the novel. Even though I had to read this over multiple weeks with a long unplanned break in the middle, this was still a catchy enough plot that I remembered everything and was able to jump right back in with characters who already stood out to me. This is what I loved so much about Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone – its unique and interesting characters, its comedic wit, the memorability of its setup, and the way it plays with GAD tropes like Knox’s Decalogue make it a wonderful read, whether you zip through it in a day or dole it out over a couple weeks like I had to do.

Ernie “Ern” Cunningham is the kind of narrator who, if he really existed, I think we would all be friends with in blog-land. He’s self-employed as an author of how-to books for struggling mystery writers, and as such has a deep knowledge of the ins and outs of the genre, including the Knox Decalogue which he reveres so much he sticks it in front of his own narrative. But Ern has some problems. His family is a bit notorious, after his father was killed on the wrong side of a police shootout. It doesn’t help that his brother Michael killed a man three years ago and Ern’s testimony put him behind bars. But Michael got a good deal, and now that he’s coming home, Aunt Katherine is planning a “mandatory” family reunion at Sky Lodge, a ski resort in their native Australia. Ern obviously wants to make amends with his family, but at the same time he’s concerned about how Michael will react to how he has spent some of the probably-illegal money he left behind the night he murdered someone. The reunion is going off to a rocky start, and things only get worse when an unidentified body is found in a snowy expanse, the inside of his mouth inexplicably singed, and only a single incompetent police officer around to investigate. Ern slowly realizes that he’ll have to take matters into his own hands, because this murder could be related to a history of shadowy family secrets. His loved ones could be potential targets… and one of them could be acting out a desire for murder.

Really, the characters in this novel are absolutely wonderful. Each one is painted with their own unique quirks, but at the same time retains an element of human understanding and likability that makes this such a fun read. Ern himself is probably my favorite. He’s the narrator, which means that what we see is coming through his lens. As a crime-fiction aficionado, Ern knows he can play with his readers and still stay faithful to the rules he expounds on everyone else. Benjamin Stevenson has done an amazing job making Ern a slightly insufferable, but all the same enjoyable, character. Ern starts off by giving his readers the page numbers of every single death that happens or is reported in the book, he’ll break the fourth wall to defend an authorial choice or bash his editor, and often he doles out spoilers strategically enough to let the reader know what will happen later but still keep them intrigued. I’m very glad that Stevenson is writing a second novel for Ern to investigate that comes out later this year, Everyone on This Train Is a Suspect. The other characters, mostly the remaining members of the Cunningham clan, are all memorable as well. Some of my favorites included Marcelo Garcia, Ern’s criminal-law stepfather, Sofia Garcia, a gifted surgeon and Marcelo’s daughter, and Andy Millot, Katherine’s wife and a man who is apparently boring as dirt but has more to offer than he seems to.

I quite enjoyed the layout of the plot. After the introduction with the page numbers, the novel is presented in different sections, each of which brings attention to a different member of the family. Each section will cover the story behind who the family member in question “killed”. I like the way that, as the book progresses, Stevenson plays with just what “killing someone” can mean. Ern provides a bit of a non-linear narrative, with several extended flashbacks that cover events from how he witnessed the murder Michael commits, to memories of his father Robert’s funeral in his childhood, and the breakdown of his own marriage. Each of these past threads creates one family history that is inextricably linked with the series of present-day murders occurring at Sky Lodge, as well as the deaths of Robert, the cop Robert shot, the man Michael killed, and three victims of a mysterious serial killer dubbed “The Black Tongue”. It’s a lot to pack into a single mystery novel, and it does pad out the length a bit (my hardcover is about 360 pages, and 300 is where I start to consider mystery novels “long”,) but it’s all worth it because everything is neatly tied together by the end.

One aspect that I found very interesting was the Australian setting. I’ve never read an Australian mystery before, and my knowledge of Australian literature doesn’t go far beyond my interest in some GAD authors like Max Afford, and a couple of Xavier Herbert paperbacks I have lying around. (Someday, someday, I will pick up that 1500-page copy of Poor Fellow My Country. Someday.) It was cool to read about how Australia actually has ski resorts – in retrospect it shouldn’t have been that surprising but I just didn’t think that Australia was that far south. It’s also clear that Australian humor is more direct and brash, not too different from British humor. Benjamin Stevenson is a perfect person to showcase this, because he’s also a comedian! A lot of the jokes he puts into this book made me laugh.

Of course, there is also the mystery itself to contend with. Since this is a popular novel published in the last year, I went in with some trepidation that I might not get what I was looking for, even though Ern himself says he’s not interested in writing a Gone Girl / Girl on the Train unreliable-narrator kind of popular thriller, although he’s probably written about writing them. Thankfully, this is a really great puzzle plot. Stevenson does a very good job of hiding clues in the open, and there were many moments at the end when I realized that, much like Christie, he had dangled a crucial piece of information right in front of me without my realizing it. There’s a steady stream of revelations, as more pieces of the puzzle from both past and present are brought out into the open. There are, of course, a couple of extra murders at the resort to keep things exciting. I had kinda guessed the identity of the murderer, but that was more intuition than anything else – Father Knox would tar and feather me! The twist behind the murderer’s identity is based on a couple of classic twists which I’ve seen many times before, but in combination it was pretty unique and I liked it. I think that, even if there was a choice of murderer which could have surprised me more, it felt like Stevenson chose the right person to be guilty. Thematically, the solution ties in to what Ern learns about family and trust during the events of the novel, and I really like that.

Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone is a wonderfully inventive and creative murder mystery, and one of those books that really is a fresh breath of air in the modern era of mystery fiction. It’s one of the many books that have come out in the past couple of years that makes me very hopeful that some kind of Second Golden Age is coming, if not already upon us without us realizing it. I would really recommend this book to classic GAD fans who also like contemporary books that break the fourth wall and play with the structure of the novel. As someone who was obsessed with Tristram Shandy in middle school, I am one of those people! HBO has the rights to make a screen adaptation of this novel as well, so I’m cautiously optimistic for a strong miniseries or TV movie (hopefully the former) that brings the world of Ernie Cunningham to life.

P.S. – I noticed an interesting parallel between this novel and Ellery Queen’s The Chinese Orange Mystery. For those of you who have read both, I’ll leave the connection in ROT13 for your perusal, because it’s a detail I loved in Chinese Orange and loved again here: Va obgu obbxf, bar bs gur znva nfcrpgf bs gur zlfgrel vf svaqvat bhg gur vqragvgl bs gur svefg ivpgvz. Naq va obgu obbxf, gur ivpgvz’f bpphcngvba vf erirnyrq va gur fbyhgvba, ohg arire gurve anzr! Rnpu obbx pyhrf fnvq bpphcngvba, naq gur bpphcngvba vf vzcbegnag va svthevat bhg gur zbgvir oruvaq gurve zheqre, ohg gurve npghny anzrf/vqragvgvrf raq hc orpbzvat havzcbegnag gb gur cybg. Jvgu Puvarfr Benatr, vg’f “Ze. Abobql sebz Abjurer” jub raqf hc orvat n zvffvbanel cevrfg fgngvbarq va Puvan naq jubfr pbyyne arprffvgngrf gur onpxjneqf pevzr fprar, naq va Rirelbar va zl Snzvyl vg’f “Terra Obbgf” jub vf erirnyrq nf gur cbyvpr fretrnag jub tnir Yhpl ure fcrrqvat gvpxrg naq jub tvirf gur zheqrere uvf pehpvny qvthvfr.

New Horizons Challenge: 3 works out of 25

Author: Benjamin Stevenson

The Challenge Requirements so far:

1/3 works translated into English

1/3 works written in English after 1970

0/2 works that are hardboiled or noir

0/2 works written by an American minority author

0/2 works with a musical setting

Other Reviews:

Ah Sweet Mystery!

All the Books I Can Read

Immersed in Books

Murder, Mayhem and Long Dogs

The Unseen Library

The Washington Post (Maureen Corrigan)


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